A sense of time

Are we helpless in the eternal slippery march of time from present to past?

A rainy sunset as viewed from a skyscraper in Makati City.

If one is feeling philosophical, one might be inclined to ponder the most basic features of our reality: space and time, the dimensions, for instance. One might then discover that these fundamental things, or objects or constructs, could be blamed for the struggles of people—the human condition, as they say.

Let us look at space. Distance is the backbone of so much human drama. It is the element present in conflicts of various genres: in romance, lovers yearn for closeness; in adventures, man attempts to overcome nature by reaching for the stars; in war, kings and generals win battles through the brilliant use of territories.

But between space and time, it is clearly the latter that is the subject of greater mystery, and deeper struggles.

While in space we are free to move forward, backward, higher, lower, and so on, under time we are in a tyranny. The future is always out of reach, the present is fleeting, and moments are always slipping into the past. Given unlimited time we could conquer any imaginable amount of space; but even with the seemingly boundless space that we have on earth and beyond, time remains invincible, unsurmountable.

In a more wordly realm, so much of human suffering finds its roots in economics. Nations wage wars over wealth. Health is wealth, as the cheap rhyme goes, but lack of health is worse than just poverty. Crime, corruption, climate change—these can all be associated and traced to the core issue of economics: the scarcity of resources. And the greatest of these constraints is time. Humans have to contend with the boundaries of a lifetime, birth and death, and all our striving is limited by this finite quantity of time.

This is what has driven so many to the futile search for immortality since ancient times. Yet, an infinite lifetime would bring with it its own set of problems; an abundance of resources, of time, would be a baffling issue of non-economics. The solution to this paradox is a shift in perspective: lifetimes are limited, but only for individuals. Time, for life, for a race or species, is continually replenished by nature through reproduction; when the strivings of an individual transforms into a project of generations, we seem to be able to transcend time, at last.

But the struggle remains for the individual, for us as persons, single minds, single identities. It takes tremendous courage to see beyond the mortal self and into an immortal society; in the meantime, there is only the present. The future is always only a plan or an expectation. The past, a memory. We sense, we feel, only the present, all the time.

This is a tremendous insight. Existential, the stuff of philosophy. And, at the same time, overpowering. What do we feel when we realize this limitation, that towards the vast realms of time, we are always only peeking through an ever-moving present? That we are helpless in the eternal slippery march of time from present to past, while the future is always only a dream?

Sadness, it seems. Instinctively, the dominant emotion, the primary feeling we associate with time is sorrow. Perhaps, we may feel anger as well, all for the sense of loss, when we think that the past is irretrievable and the present always so fleeting.

But it does not have to stay this way, and indeed we all have found ways to fight back, to rage against the dying of the light.

We celebrate holidays. We wrote calendars, watched the stars, and re-wrote our months and days until our years have become a perfect measure of the seasons. We mark the cycles from fall to spring, from tág-aráw to tág-ulán; we celebrate the coming of new years.

A rainy sunset as viewed from a skyscraper in Makati City.
Sunsets are beautiful not only because they are colorful, but also because they are fleeting.

A small personal tradition I keep for Old Year’s Day (December 31), is a habit of watching the last sunset of the year. I make sure that I am outdoors with a wide view when the sun dips below the horizon. Sometimes the sky is clear, and the sunset is a beautiful gradient of blue and orange. Sometimes it is cloudy or rainy, and the dimming light is a somber gray. And it is all right. The next day’s sunset will never be not much different, yet it is always beautiful, because I am thinking of the year that was and the year that will be, that the earth was in the same position with respect to the sun the last time I watched the sky like this, and it is a profound moment.

If New Year’s Day always gives us hope, we should not only feel sadness or despair about the problem of time, but also gratitude, for the gift of time. We should thank the universe, the Creator, for the chance to experience what is past, for the ability to feel what is present, and for the capacity to imagine what is still to come.

Further reading

This piece was inspired by the following Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article:

Le Poidevin, Robin, “The Experience and Perception of Time”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/time-experience/>.


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