Watching Time Pass

Don’t you sometimes wonder about Time? I know I do; as the years fall from my branches, it occurs to me to wonder how much of it I have left. But the thing about Time, is that it seems more of a sensation, rather than a perception. What I perceive is what is actually there in the ‘outside’ world: the hardness of a table, say, or the composition of a log; what I sense, however, is how I interpret it; it’s not just that I perceive a fire is orange and dancing around, but that it hurts if I touch it: sensation is my personal opinion about what I’ve perceived.

So, what about Time? What should I make of the changes that seem to occur ‘outside’ me from moment to moment? Should I credit the changes out there with more validity than that of the sensations that flit through my mind as I consider how I’ve been affected? Are those subject, perhaps, to my mood or are they, as Dickens has Scrooge say about seeing the ghost of Marley, merely an ‘undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato’? And to which group does Time belong? Are both groups equivalent… or is Time entirely its perception? Where does the ‘inside’ I stop, and the ‘outside’ it begin? Thinking about stuff like this is like walking into a blender…

It’s confusing when you consider Time like that isn’t it? Confusing, but perhaps reassuring as well -maybe we have a choice whether we use perception or sensation for it. I thought I’d run it past the guys at our weekly meeting at the Food Court in our local mall.

There was a motley crew on the day I chose for my mission -only three showed up. Attendance was largely a function of how urgently they were needed at home, now that they were retired. The general rule was that they were granted freedom if their wives were satisfied the garbage had been taken to the curb, and that the lawn was mowed (or the snow shovelled from the sidewalk in the winter). Merit points were assigned if they had done the dishes, and put their dirty clothes in the correct hamper; frustration points accumulated if they turned on the TV too early in the morning, or were caught lounging on the porch waiting for breakfast to be served.

James had escaped the house that day in a rumpled shirt and grey flannel pants with a grass stain on one knee -fortunately, though, his mismatching socks led my eyes away from the stain. Edward, on the other hand, was smartly dressed as usual, but although he had chosen jeans and a white shirt buttoned all the way to the top, his head, rather than being in control,  bobbled up and down on his thin neck like a goose searching for bugs as he nibbled his bagel in swift, clumsy sorties to the paper plate.

The only normal one was Gerald, who had once been a teacher until he’d had to take an extended leave to care for his wife. She was now in a Home, but he was too old to return to his former classroom. Still, he was the one who waved as I approached the table which the group had occupied like a rebel army.

“Hey G, we’re over here,” he yelled over the noise of excited children running around the tables as their mothers tried to ignore them. “You’re late again,” he added, as if it really mattered to anybody.

“Sorry,” I replied when I was close enough to talk in a normal voice. “Time seems different now that I’m retired…” It was a weak, and largely unnecessary concession; there was no correct time; we merely showed up sometime around 10 AM on Wednesdays if we could make it. I was the only unmarried person in the group, though, so I suspect that Gerald figured I would have nothing else to do, whatever the day.

“It does seem to drag sometimes,” Edward added, as my words snuck into his ears between nibbles.

“I don’t know about that,” James piped in. “Amanda always seems to find something for me to do if she sees me moping about the house. The day just… well goes. She’s visiting her sister for a few days, so I got here on time,” he said, grinning from ear to ear with pride.

Gerald stared at his half-eaten doughnut for a moment. “I often wonder about Time, you know… It seems to change speeds depending on what you’re doing, doesn’t it?” He used our nodding acquiescence of his profundity to take a large bite from what was left of one of his doughnuts. “Like, when Lucinda was healthy we used to travel a lot…” He finished chewing and slurped contemplatively at his coffee. “Time seemed to pass differently as we admired a new street scene, or visited a store and tried to speak the language… What was going on then, do you think? Can Time really move at different rates?”

I smiled at that, although I don’t think anybody noticed. “Maybe it’s just that new things -stuff we haven’t encountered before- require us to pay more attention, so we don’t gloss over them like we do with familiar, expected things…”

“So why would that allow time move at different speeds, G?” James asked, with a full mouth.

“It doesn’t,” I tried to explain.

“It seems to, though,” he countered.

“Even when you’re asleep?” I added, more to tease him than to make a point.

Edward attempted a chuckle, but with his mouth full again, a bit of doughnut dribbled down his chin. “Especially when you’re asleep -there’s no Time then, G.”

“No Time? Why?”

He shrugged and looked at the others for support. “Because you can’t think about it -can’t feel it maybe…”

I began to smile again. “Unless you’re a solipsist, does that tell you anything about Time?”

“What do you mean?” Gerald asked when neither Edward or James offered an answer.

“I mean is it only your Time that isn’t there? Surely the person across the street with her light on still has her Time…”

Gerald smiled and then shrugged in agreement.

I returned his shrug. “Maybe each of us exists in his own personal Time. Perhaps whatever is happening outside our bodies and in the world around us has to be interpreted personally…” I hesitated for a moment to get his reaction, but instead he picked up the last piece of his third doughnut and put it in his mouth. “Let’s take an example: a slap in the face doesn’t necessarily hurt, does it? It often only does if, say, we feel we’ve done something to deserve it; feelings like pain are felt differently when we understand the cause…”

I looked at the others, but neither got it.

I wasn’t explaining it very well, but that’s because I was still trying to understand what I meant. “Maybe Time is just a sensation: a very personal interpretation of what’s happening outside your body…”

“But, G, Time is objective as well, eh? I mean it flows like a river from the Past where it started, to the Future where it ends up. How does it change its speed -I don’t have any control over that, do I?” James seemed confused.

I didn’t really have an answer, but I kept thinking of something Sartre once wrote: ‘Existence precedes Essence‘. We can only achieve agency after we come into existence. Could it be that way with Time, as well? Was it a product of our being able to think about it, conceive of it…? But I hadn’t thought that through enough to argue it with the guys, so I thought I’d better drop the subject.

But Gerald didn’t want to let it go. “Tell you what, G, I was planning to go for another doughnut,” he said, looking at his now empty plate. “Want one?” he asked. When I nodded, he smiled at the others. “With or without a hole?” he added and the others laughed. “It doesn’t really matter though does it, G? Most of us never even think about the holes… and anyway you can’t feel a hole…”

I always had to laugh at Gerald: he loved metaphors…


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