Reflections on Time

I suppose it should come as no surprise that it is easier to complain than it is to observe things going well.  This, then, may be an exception.  Monica and I recently rented a house in Pacific Grove for a week and invited our family to come join us for celebration.  I wrote the following reflections to share at a dinner hosted by my Sister, Wandzia, her husband, Marvin, and their daughter Kasia.

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I want to share with you some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head recently.  Monica and I have been anticipating our birthdays this year.  They seem special this year, somehow; Monica has turned 70 this month, and I will turn 75 the month following. 

  • Reaching 70 years in this life is a respectable amount of time.
  • Reaching 75 is, similarly, respectable.
    • One begins to seriously confront end-of-life issues like filling in Advanced Medical Directives and making sure to be up-to-snuff with one’s God.  
  • Living, side-by-side with Monica for 41 years is a long time.
    •  I’m becoming more aware of her reliably dependable good advice and knowledge, just as she is becoming more comfortable in pointing out my faults… most especially as concerns my health, nutrition and those questionable habits of mine… acting as if I were 30 years younger when, in fact, my body parts (especially joints… but also sight, balance, motor skills, and… and… and…) are showing disturbing signs of creakiness.
  • 41 years for each of us is well past the halfway mark of our lives.
    • We’ve each lived with the other longer than we’ve lived apart.  That constitutes a special quality of “a long time”.
  • I was diagnosed with Stage Four Terminal Cancer on June 7, 2011, eight years ago!  
    • Living eight years past my diagnosis is—by any calculation—an extraordinary length of time.

Thinking about time made me brush up and update information I originally acquired from my high school physics and college philosophy classes.

One startling fact remains unchanged: time—as ubiquitous and ever-present as it is in our every-day lives—plays no role in our scientific understanding of the cosmos.  Apart from being a simple measure of change (a kind of tape measure), science doesn’t need “time” to explain how the universe was created nor what forces make it function. That seems incredible to me, yet it is true.  

The official definition of time by the American Physics Association is
“Time is what the clock says.”

Still, we experience time and can study it in various ways.  

500 A.D. — Boethius famously postulated that human time is different from God’s time.  Boethius asserted that the two times could co-exist, perhaps prefiguring contemporary string theory by several centuries.

1927 — Science has defined what we all know to be true: that time has a direction.  Scientists call that quality “the Arrow of Time.”

1950 — Einstein—writing about human time in this universe (as separate from “God’s time”)—stipulated that no matter where in our universe we might be, sitting here in Carmel Valley or, hypothetically, sitting on the edge of a black hole in an unimaginably distant far-off galaxy, we must experience the passage of time the same way, one second after another.

We also speak of the “end of time” and consider that a marker of considerable importance. The end of time is a point at which the universe, as we know it, ceases to exist. But we also imagine that something continues to exist after the “end of time”; just that our experience in this world ceases.
We each experience time subjectively.  To better illumine our personal experience of time might require the expertise of psychologist or a brain specialists dealing with memory, among other disciplines; also of philosophers and theologians.  Time, though it may not be needed in mathematical formulae is complex in its own right and can only be understood through the insights of many experts from differing approaches. 
Practically speaking, what our subjective experience reveals to us as laypersons is that time seems to be composed of fleeting “slivers of being”.  We can retain past events in our minds and recall those memories, but we can’t go back in any practical sense to re-live previously “completed” events.  The slivers stack up in our memories like cards fill an old-fashioned library card catalog.  The Arrow of Time doesn’t permit going back to experience them over; only to recognize that events happened in some time past.
One CalTech astrophysicist, Sean Carroll* described it this way, “I can make an omelette out of an egg, but I can’t go back and make an egg out of an omelette.”  In using these words he added an important complication to our rumination on time.  The inability to “go back” is not merely an issue of memory, it has physical implications, as well!

If we can’t go backwards, we might try to “go with the flow” in the direction of the Arrow of Time: forward.  Here, though, we are stymied again.  We believe we can anticipate what lies ahead, but our anticipation is seriously constrained by our inability to comprehend the complexity of what influences events in the future. 

I may think, “I’ll make a breakfast omelette for Monica tomorrow.”  
– But as the time approaches, I might find I’ve overslept.  
– I may find the last of the eggs were used the evening before.
– Overnight, an earthquake might have hit and we’ll have forgotten all about breakfast.   
– The doorbell might ring and when we open it the Publisher’s Clearing House representatives might have arrived with the first installment of our randomly-awarded “one-million-dollars-a-week-for-our lifetime”… and we’ll go out for breakfast.
– Monica might awaken and say, “Let’s pack a picnic and have breakfast at the beach.”

Any number of circumstances can and do force us to adjust our plans.  It happens so constantly and reliably that we don’t even notice that we can’t foretell future events save in grossly generalized ways.
What we can conclude is that, as far as time is concerned, our human existence is embedded in the sliver of time (one 3×5 card thick) that is “now”, not “before”, and not “to come.”

Spiritually-wise person’s have described this understanding as “living in the present” or “living mindfully”.  To live mindfully means to be increasingly conscious, every second, of the extraordinary dynamism and complexity that occurs in the sliver of time in which we presently exist… of you being here to celebrate with Monica and me; of my being present at this second with my children and grandchildren; of each of us experiencing at this moment the joy of family and friends, and—on this day, most of all—of my awareness that I share my sliver with Monica, and can experience how much satisfaction, companionship and pleasure she brings to my life.

There is a plaque in this home, just in the other room.  It contains a quotation from Carl Jung and reads, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”  Aware of existing in our ever-fleeting sliver of time, I’d like to call to mind that bidden or unbidden presence of God in our midst. 
We bid ourselves to be conscious of that constant presence in order to give thanks… serious and deliberate gratitude for the countless and undeserved blessings that flow—especially to each of us—as we gather tonight, in Wandzia and Marvin’s warm and welcoming home and anticipate the meal and conversation they set before us. 

Indeed, the table was set with consummate attention to beauty and celebration. Our conversations were lively. The laughter was hearty and heartfelt.  Our food and wine nourishing as well as tasty.  Our gratitude was palpable.  

The question that remains for each of us is:
“How best do I express my gratitude in the sliver of time in which I exist.”

*Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist at Caltech where he focuses on theories of cosmology, field theory and gravitation by studying the evolution of the universe. As quoted in Wired Magazine.