What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know. St. Augustine
We typically segment time into three clearly demarked, independent parts. Past: over, done, gone. Present: now, ephemeral, ever-evaporating. Future: yet to be, a horizon beyond the rim of the present. This makes much intuitive sense, and presumes an objective river of time that carries us along in its current, a stream parceled into a regular metronome of moments, pacing off seconds, minutes, hours… We thus can situate ourselves within the surge of time: it is now January 1, 2020, at 10:31.09 AM. Which, of course, is immediately consigned to the past as the present rushes into the future. The flux of time is thus given some measure of order, stability and control.
Physics of Time
This ordering, however intuitively obvious and useful, does not snare time. Modern physics offers a very detailed understanding of the remarkable and bizarre features of time as a physical phenomenon. In the smallest of durations, in the quantum zone inhabited by subatomic and virtual particles, time becomes unmeasurable and merges with mass and energy. What does this even mean? When considering cosmic time of vast dimensions, time and space are welded, and in the proximity of entities of unimaginably huge masses, a time horizon appears beyond which time disappears down a black (rabbit) hole. And everything, including time, began with the Big Bang1. No metronome of regular moments here.
Psychology of Time
The physics of time does not exhaust time’s possibilities. Psychological time, our personal experience of it, is as powerful, meaningful and complex. Here, too, time manifests itself in multiple guises. Our experience of duration is intimately entangled with our encounter with the world. Searing, inescapable pain creates an eternity of seconds. Joy and surprise can halt time. Boredom, pleasure, play—indeed, the entire range of our emotional life—all have their unique temporality.
Furthermore, while segmenting time into independent zones of ‘past, present, future’ helps order and understand our experience of time, these zones also interpenetrate, mutually influencing each other.
Future present tense: My goals, expectations, wishes, desires, hopes and fears, and how I thrust myself into the future—all these focus and structure my attention in the present. What captures my interests, what priorities I give to my immediate efforts are shaped by the gravitational pull of the future. Change my goals, aspirations and expectations, I change my life as lived in the present.
Future past tense: This same tug of future’s influence extends into the past. How I construct and understand my past is shaped by what I expect, hope, fear. The past, while over, does not sit inertly in my life. What facts do I remember? What meaning and value do I attribute to them? What is forgotten? Our memory is not a photographic plate impassively recording events as they scroll by. It is an active process, influenced by attention, expectations and under constant reconstruction and renovation.
Past present future tense: The past reaches into the present and shapes our anticipations of the future. What we have experienced organizes how we act and respond in the present and guides our expectations for the future. Our experiences in childhood, our prior traumas, trials and triumphs, our relationships of significance with others and much else in the past have enduring influence on our present and future. Habit and memory are powerful ways the past grips the present and reaches into the future.2
Present past future tense: The grip of the past and the pull of the future meet in the present; it is a temporal vortex not only influenced by past and future, but exerts its own power, “on the fly”, on the past (testing, reinforcing, revising, altering and creating new habits and memory) as well as the future (testing, abandoning, revising, renewing and forging new expectations and anticipations).
The very foundation, structure and texture of our lives turn on these dynamic temporal relationships. This is underscored when we try to understand, manage and change our lives. Temporality is the central focus of all therapy, or any agent of personal change, regardless of its form, offering us different ways to understand our past, comport in the present, and anticipate the future. We change the past by changing our present and future. We change our future by changing our present and past. And so on. They are all dynamically connected. The most final and dramatic way to escape when the weight and pain of these temporal dynamics becomes unbearable is to end time; to commit suicide.
Being and Non-Being
Death, and the decision to choose death through suicide, underscores that we are not just in time, not just an object sailing along in the river of time, but composed of time; a song. We can experience ourselves as a biological entity, as a ‘human being’, a noun, but we also are ‘be-ings’, verbs, gerunds of temporality and tense whose plight is shadowed by non-being, death. We are embodied time; a paradox, a befuddlement, an enigma.
We may understand some of the ways time manifests itself that St. Augustine did not. The vexation of time, however, remains, for it is integral to the unfathomable mystery that is our being.
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.