What is Time?

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

For the first few years of childhood, we exist in a bubble. Inside this bubble, the world is in stasis. We know our place in the universe, and consequently the universe doesn’t seem to be all that scary a place. Then something curious happens.

The world begins to change.

At first, it only seems to change in small ways. We notice the cycles in the sky. We begin to track the passing of the seasons. But the things that really matter, the people we love and the security we find in the bosom of the familiar, they remain fixed, and so we regard these discoveries with only a passing curiosity. Then something uncomfortable happens.

The world changes some more.

The warm inviting cocoon that we were born into begins to break down. We graduate from school. Get a job. The people we love move on. Important landmarks are torn down to make way for shopping malls and apartments. One by one, everything we loved is either rewritten or lost forever.

Before too long, we’re surrounded by a hostile alien world. We start to feel the ravages of age, creeping up on us like deadly vines, and we realize it’s only a matter of time before this cruel existence of ours comes to an unpredictable end. We gaze about, exiles in our own backyard, and we can’t help but wonder, “What is time?”

Time is currency.

Each of us has a fixed balance, deposited at the moment of conception, and everything we do is accompanied by a corresponding withdrawal. Like money, we can choose to spend it wisely, doing worthwhile activities that enrich ourselves and others, or we can fritter it away on wasted hours, sitting around on the couch or laying in bed because we have nothing better to do. We would do well to make the most of what we have, lest we spend our deathbed hours as beggars, scrounging in the gutter for chronological crumbs in our haste to make up for a lifetime of regret.

Time is a veil.

A cosmic curtain, time keeps the past, the present and the future neatly partitioned, allowing us to experience life in manageable bite-sized chunks. Usually this veil is opaque. But every so often, especially as we advance in age, it begins to stretch and pull like taffy, made thin and partially transparent so that in moments of intense reflection, we feel that if only we peer a bit closer, we might yet sight those spectres of the past we’d thought lost years ago.

Time is an ocean.

A vast expanse of cause and effect stretching all the way back to the Big Bang, we navigate its treacherous waters like sailors, attempting to stay afloat for as long as possible while we map the uncharted regions of the future.

Time is motion.

Like a river it flows, sweeping us away in its implacable current, making vagrants of us all. Those who stop and turn back to mourn the increasingly hazy past are dragged by their feet kicking and screaming, torn away from everything and everyone they ever loved.

Time is a fire.

It blazes across the universe, burning everything in its path, reducing the cosmos to ash. Not a one of us escapes its ageless and insatiable maw. It strips us to our souls, consuming the rest in a brilliant infernal flash. As Delmore Schwartz puts it in Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day, “time is the fire in which we burn.”

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13 thoughts on “What is Time?”

  1. I’m so happy I followed the link from Cristian and discovered you. Love this article, and will explore your site. I also signed up to your mailing list. Thanks, Jeff, for being you.

  2. “Time is an illusion…lunch time doubly so.” (From The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams) We all get the same amount of time, in terms of 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year…and yet, we definitely feel that time either moves too fast, or too slow, for our liking. And we can’t control the passing of time, so it does make sense to decide how we really want to spend our lives. Great picture, by the way.

    1. Thanks. I bought it on Shutterstock ;-P I still haven’t read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy yet. I should probably do that before it becomes one of those regrets I wrote about ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Pingback: What is Time? | ugiridharaprasad

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  5. I’ve long wondered if time is a result of memory? If we completely lived in the present with no concept of past or future, time may not exist…though it may not be a safe way to live. ๐Ÿ˜€

    1. That’s an interesting thought. I believe that time is all at once an objective and a subjective phenomenon. But how much it is of each and in what ways, who could say? It appears through modern physics experiments that time along with space is a tangible medium that can be warped and manipulated. And yet, our experience of time, which relies completely on our perceptions, is such a fundamental ingredient to our understanding of the universe and how it operates. Is time objectively a sequence of events moving in only one direction, or is it just that our limited existence makes us perceive it to be so? And does time flow only along a single axis, or are there perhaps multiple dimensions of “time”?

      The universe is a strange place.

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