Time is walking
You ain't no friend of mine
I don't know where i'm goin'
I think I'm out of my mind
Thinking about time
- Hootie and the Blowfish
These lyrics from the 1996 hit song Time sums up the influence of time in our modern world - we are obsessed with time! There are pros and cons to this obsession with time. Modernity’s productivity and efficiency is largely a product of our ability to agree on deadlines and start and stop times. Yet when we view time as an unavoidable objective entity that influences every aspect of our lives, then, as Hootie points out, obsession with time can result in a sort of mild neurosis, created no less, by something that is not real.
Time is not an objective reality, it is a human construction. Humans “create” time to make sense of change in the world. For our ancient ancestors, time was attached to changing seasons because an understanding of the seasons was important to their survival. Seasons dictated when to plant, hunt, harvest, and prepare for drought and cold weather. For example, in ancient Egypt time was tied to the rising of the Nile River, which, the Egyptians noted, occurred when the star Sirius arose above the horizon just before sunrise.
Because the ancients used time to represent reoccurring events, their understanding of time was cyclical. For them the planting and harvest seasons were not events that came and went; they were events that continually repeated themselves. A classic example is the way in which Egyptians returned to “year 1” every time a new pharaoh came to power, a practice that has created angst among more than a few modern Egyptologists trying to figure out when one kingdom ended and another began. By using time to prepare for important cyclical events, the ancients made time conform to natural events.
Things are much different today. Rather than viewing time as change, time is now viewed as a linear sequence that drives change. Linear time, as it is sometimes called, is the modern belief that time is a causal force that flows in a linear fashion, like an arrow. There is the past extending behind us and the future extending in front of us. In between lay the present, the knife point representing the here and now. We are locked into the present, never able to move forward into the future and never able to retreat back into our past.
Linear time is so commonplace in our society that we have reified it, which is to say that we have characterized it as a real entity. With reified time, we make our lives conform to time rather than making time conform to our lives. This modern view of time has us locked into the present, determined by an unchangeable objective past, and ever moving forward into an unknowable future! Is it any wonder that this state of affairs creates anxiety for Hootie and others!? To make matters worse, because time comes and goes in a linear fashion and is real, when it is gone, it is gone for good, so we should not waste it.
If this modern concept of time has created some angst in your life, here are some thoughts to consider.
Time is not real. It is a human construct built to make sense of change. It is not the final arbiter of when events should and should not occur. You do not have to eat lunch at noon; you can eat when you are hungry. There is no such thing as an objective past determining your present circumstances, and there is no such thing as an objective unknowable future. The past is merely a conscious perception of what was, and the future is merely a conscious perception of what may become. In a manner of speaking, the past, present, and future simultaneously exist in the here and now, in your conscious experience.
When we de-reify and de-linearize time in our minds, time becomes less of a disinterested task master and more of a way of representing change. De-reifying and de-linearizing time may also help us more fully appreciate our agency and the importance of living and delighting in the here and now. It may also help us gain somewhat of a godly perspective on things. God’s work is not driven by time schedules; it is driven by His infinite goodness and wisdom. And God does not have an objective past and future. The Prophet Joseph Smith declared, “The past, the present, and the future were and are, with Him, one eternal now” (Joseph Smith and Modern Mormonism).