Mark Swint, author of
What a strange and undefinable commodity time is. If ever anything can truly be everything to everyone then time is that thing. It acts both as a force and as a substance. It is a medication and a salve. We say that time heals all wounds. Time often seems like a partner to our endeavors. We start a business for instance and are then urged to “give it time” to let the business grow. Time acts as a soothsayer, a fortune teller. We say “time will tell” and mean it. We look forward to the day when time will reveal all to us and we know it is only a “matter of time” before we divine the answer. Time urges us on. We constantly remind each other that “we are on the clock” or we say “come on people, the clock is ticking”. Each of us has all the time there is yet all of us complain that there is never enough time.
All aspects of life are controlled by time. We pay our mortgages after the passage of so many days. So too our car payments and our utilities and every other bill. We measure our longevity at our jobs by our hire date. We measure our existence on Earth by the amount of time that has passed since our birth and we count down the days to retirement by the number of years months weeks or days until the calendar says it is time to go.
The philosopher will tell us that time is the only thing that is real and that without it there would be no existence. Some wag once reminded us that God made time so that everything didn’t happen all at once. Of course Einstein told us that time was relative and in almost every way I can think of that proves to be true. He was, of course talking about time dilation relative to speed as a percentage of the speed of light, but the basic concept of time is both intensely personal and variable. When I was a child my mother made me study the piano. I only had to practice one half hour a day but that half hour was interminably long. That is, of course, because I didn’t particularly want to practice or play the piano. I was certain that I could hear every tick of the clock running at quarter speed or less. Conversely, when I was out playing ball with my buddies and mom said dinner would be ready in half an hour and I could stay out till then, it seemed that she was immediately back on the porch calling me in.
Another strange aspect of time is that it looks both forward and backward. Not that we can reverse the hands of time but time is always working on the past while leading us to the future. While it is beckoning us ever forward with promises of advancement, growth and progress, it is, at the same time, falling like the snows of winter on our past, covering up all the events that define us. Both the joys and the pains of times past seem to dull as time goes by. On a grander scale history – the collective history of all of us – is constantly being shaped by the dust of time, the sands of the hour glass so to speak. What is presently fact will quickly become history and then legend and then myth and finally fantasy. We tend to forget very quickly the realities and the lessons of time. So distressing is this that we are constantly admonished that “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Why do you suppose that is? It seems a fairly simple thing to record the daily events of the world and have them available for all to see, but that is not so. You see, history is the privilege of the victor. If indeed every story has two sides then we are at the mercy of the side that won, that got to write the history as they perceived it or even as they desired it to be perceived. A case in point; when I was a kid my history teachers always made a point of saying that the founding fathers of America are only venerated because they won. Had they lost the revolutionary war they would have been branded as traitors, rounded up and sent back to England to be hung as an example to others who would dare to challenge the king. But they did win so we live in an independent land and enjoy the freedoms we do because of their sacrifice. Yet across the pond, in England, I was walking through London recently and noticed a plaque on the side of a building that proudly announce that this was the home of Benedict Arnold, a hero of the revolution.
It is a particularly disturbing fact of life that we tend to dismiss time that has passed because we are so busy planning for and budgeting the time that is here or that is coming. As we stress about the challenges ahead we often miss the opportunity to gain strength and support from the times that have passed so that we are constantly ‘reinventing the wheel’. It is not uncommon for someone to make the same mistakes over and over again because they fail to remember the events of times past. We fellow observers are prompted to say, “When will he ever learn?” or “this guy just never learns!” learns what? Learns the lessons that times past could have taught him if he would only have listened, looked and pondered. Thus we are destined to repeat our history. The great British comedian Eddie Izzard likes to point out that Hitler failed to learn from Napoleon the futility of attacking Russia in the winter when he opened his war on the eastern front, a mistake which cost the lives of nearly 25 million people. Of course Eddie has the amazing ability to somehow make that seem funny but the principle is true. (An interesting side note. The Overture of 1812, that most favorite piece of every Fourth of July celebration and also the theme for Quaker Oats was written not about the war of 1812 but rather the victory of Russia over Napoleon’s troops at the battle of the Borodines. The piece was written by Peter Tchaikovsky and premiered at the grand opening of Carnegie Hall in new York in 1899).
Sadly, much of history is deleted for political expediency. The founding principles that a nation is built on work until the current tenants of that country wish to go a different direction. At that point it is expedient to erase, ignore or simply forget the words of wisdom and the lessons learned with spilt blood because they don’t work with the new plan. It is sad for me to witness the political assassination of the reputations of the founding fathers I grew up respecting who, when unfairly measured against the prevailing philosophies of men today, suddenly don’t fit any more. Of course I understand and agree that the history I was taught was itself subject to ‘spin’. I know George Washington didn’t really have that episode with the cherry tree and probably was as able to tell a lie as any other mere mortal. But, the wisdom and the sacrifice displayed by the founding fathers and the words penned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence are as valid today as they were 238 years ago.
I also find it interesting that the passage of time somehow invalidates the events that transpired and the words that were uttered so long ago. We (for reasons I know not) have somehow decided that if something happened long ago it is of no practical use to us today. This in spite of the fact that human nature is constant and unchangeable. Greed, avarice, ambition, lust, envy and hatred have always been the driving forces that inspired most men and I suppose that will continue unabated until the end of times, whenever that may be. But the lessons learned in Hamlet are as applicable today as they were long ago in Denmark. The love and anguish of Romeo and Juliet in Verona can still be found everywhere on earth today. The intrigue of Macbeth still works in the hearts of evil and conspiring men today as well. Time does not erase the value of the lessons learned by previous generations.
So, what are we to do with the time we are allotted? How can we best put it to use? What lessons can we learn from time that has already passed? Well, that is a fair question. What do you want to do with the time that is apportioned to you? You are free to do with it as you will. You can pass the majority of it watching and worrying about the Kardashians, or getting involved with the phony intrigue of the Real Housewives series. You can eschew all the worldly entrapments and go sit on a mountain top contemplating your existence. Similarly you can employ time to invest and build a nest egg for retirement, or use the time to enhance or learn a new skill. You can while away your time reading and learning out of the best books words of wisdom gleaned from the ages. You can let the curious side of you study and research and find out all those little things no one ever explained to you, like why September, October, November and December have the Latin roots of 7,8,9 and 10 but in fact are the 9rth 10th 11th and 12th months of our calendar. You can ponder why we use the word ‘Noon’ to denote mid-day. Where did it come from and why do we use it. You can even pursue more trivial tidbits of knowledge such as where the rock band ‘The Foo Fighters’ got their name? What is the origin of the name ‘Wandering Jew’ given to common houseplants in every girl’s dormitory. Where did that come from?
All these things and many many more are there for your discovery and nowadays research is so easy with the advent of the internet, Google and Wikipedia, Bing and a host of other search engines and resources. You just may find that there is a fascinating world of knowledge and understanding out there that will fill your heart with wonderment and joy.
Ask questions. Learn to question everything. Realize that just because someone tells you that something is so doesn’t necessarily mean it is so. Think of how many times you have been scared by the media because they made you afraid of things that never came to pass. Do you remember ‘Global Cooling’ or Y2K, or SARS, or H1N1, or Bird flu, Swine flu, Asian flu, Pig flu, etcetera etcetera. How about the cold war and the billions sent to fend off the Great Russian Bear (for those of us from the sixties). I’m not saying these things weren’t worthy of our attention but on the other hand, how many of them actually, really, honestly, affected you? Did the Ozone Layer disappear? Have the ocean levels risen so as to cover one whole story of Manhattan as was predicted, nay, asserted by Michael Mann and Steven Jones before congress in 1988. They said it would take twenty years. I still go to New York and I don’t see water anywhere. I’m not saying people don’t raise legitimate concerns. I’m just pointing out that all of these dire predictions have done nothing except create fear and thus, break loose billions of dollars for ‘research and remediation’. With just a bit of searching, asking and pondering you may be able to shield yourself from those who would manipulate you and scare you through fear and threats of imminent bodily harm.
You can become the master of your own fate. You can learn to spend time productively and thereby enhance your life experience on this orb to a greater degree than you may have previously thought possible. You can take the time to learn for yourself the facts that newsreaders so cavalierly and authoritatively throw at you every night. They may be right, they may be wrong. Wouldn’t you like to know for yourself? Go ahead…ponder this….take all the time you need. After all, you have all the time in the world.