A subject that has increasingly preoccupied me in recent years is time. This isn’t just because I’m getting older; or, rather, my aging probably is a major factor–but only because I begin to understand more of what’s happening around me, not because my own hour-glass is running short of sand.
I perceive, for instance, that people become less concerned about their moral duty as they become more convinced in the relentless linearity of time. Today is soon yesterday. You’re not the same person now as you were ten years ago (as cliché thinking would have it), and ten years from now you’ll be yet another being. Promises therefore fall by the wayside quite naturally–for how can a butterfly be held responsible for the commitments of a caterpillar? And you are supposed to grow wings, aren’t you? Isn’t that a good thing–to change and grow, to “evolve” in your thinking? You’re caught in a circle if you’re not moving in a line; but as long as you keep moving forward, there’s a chance that you’re also moving upward…
And so on, and so on. I’ve come to find these truisms very tiring. They’re excuses for so much duplicity, cowardice, and slovenly thinking that I’m near to declaring them void of any truth at all. That wouldn’t be fair, of course; but the “morally evolved” person, even when he sees that his perspective of yesterday was short-sighted, continues to stand by promises made yesterday upon which others depend–or else he accepts the penalty for not doing so without complaint. How many people of that sort do you see around you right now?
The linear/progressive view of time, by the way, hasn’t always been around. In fact, it’s a very recent arrival, characterizing none of human pre-history and perhaps one tenth of our recorded history. A far more natural perspective (to judge from its statistical dominance) has been that of conforming oneself to the values and examples of one’s ancestors. An ethos collects from the practices of several centuries; it has been refined by the process of trial and error and has withstood the “test of time”. Why should we assume that we can break with precedent and suffer no consequences? On the contrary, only a fool ignores the directions of those who have preceded him down the road of life.
For much of the Christian era, we of the West have adopted a fusion of the two views. We were no longer looking back over our collective shoulder at the Heroic Age, but forward, rather, to the end of earthly time and the fulfillment of our identity in a loving, purposeful god. We struggled to put the Old Man behind us and live in the New Man; yet that New Man was ascending to complete a circle whose first movements were embedded in our basic nature, not “boldly going where no man has gone before” in an indefinitely extending exploration of the physical universe.
Science has thrust us upon this Star Trek trajectory wherein change may either have little sense or may, indeed, end in disaster, since it is no longer magnetized to a transcending, metaphysical objective. We morph into multi-sexual beings who no longer reproduce: that’s “progress”. We fuse with robots to reduce our susceptibility to disease and prolong our material presence: that, too, is “progress”. We introduce our hybrid selves into solar systems far from our own but not endowed with any property that will prove more salutary to the soul than was Planet Earth; and that will be styled progress, as well… but I wonder if it might not be eternal Hell by any other name?
Linear time can become a toxic drug. We would do well not to pay too little attention to ourselves today as we await the new-and-improved beings we imagine ourselves becoming tomorrow.