For most of us today the songbirds will sing as the clouds scud across the cobalt dome of the sky. Tonight, the sun will melt across the horizon like toffee, and the feathery new moon will wax and wane once more. Although we may try to live every day as if it were our last, set intentions to live in the now, it may be a melody, fragrance, or the feeling of walking over grass that’s wet with dew that takes us back, makes us wish we could turn back time. Say we’re sorry. Re-live that time, kinder, more forgiving, more patient, more loving, than we were then. Though the ghosts of time may haunt us, we cannot turn back Time. And if we only live in the past, our lives will be preserved in amber, sadly one dimensional. “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then,” said Alice in Wonderland.
Time is an emotional experience. Each new day like opening a cardboard window of an advent calendar, discovering a chocolate or a tiny tableau we either like, or don’t. Is Time is a collage of events or states of mind?
We know time will pass without us when we will die. When we are willing to step out of our sometimes limited construct of time, we observe the changing scenery, as if from the window of a train.
For eons, our ancestors have marked the passage of time, noted the cycles of the Venus and the Moon. A small piece of a baboon’s fibula dates to about 35,000 BC. It was discovered in the Lebombo Mountains near Swaziland. There are twenty-nine notches carved into the bone. A marker of a menstrual lunar cycle, perhaps? We will never know for certain. Paradoxically, in a modern time-obsessed world, the Amondawa tribe of the Amazon who were “discovered” by anthropologists in 1986 have a different time map. They have no word for time. No “I’ll see you next week.” No “It happened last year.” Events occur in time but time is not a separate concept.
Albert Einstein would agree. “Time is an illusion,” he said. “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” Science suggests that time is a cognitive construct. Some psychologists suggest time is a matter of perception. We can choose to feel irritated when we’re stuck in traffic. We can choose to feel at peace as we take a moment to observe the clouds and the sunlight as it ignites the office windows. Grateful for the hiatus in the busyness of our day. Time appears to be elastic, when perceived through the hall of mirrors that is our mind.
Author and broadcaster Claudia Hammond suggests in her new book, Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, that we actively create and shape time in our minds. Neuroscience and psychology dub this “mind time”.
Psychological studies propose that time does move slowly for those who feel depressed, lonely or suicidal. When we are actively engaged in our work or our social interactions, we may feel as though time slips past like quicksilver. Those who have experienced the terror of a car crash or a hi-jacking will report that everything seemed to move in slow motion. For many, memories of a trauma remain frozen in the musculature and nervous system of the body.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, suggests “People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory—and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media. Frequently mentioned topics populate the mind even as others slip away from awareness.” Claudia Hammond writes, “You are most likely to remember the timing of an event if it was distinctive, vivid, personally involving and is a tale you have recounted many times since.”
It’s astounding, time is fleeting
Madness takes its toll…
Surely, time and memory recall are far more subtle than this. Wilhelm Reich talked about the basic expansion and contraction of life which ripples from the amoeba to the human being. And therapist and author Peter A. Levine, who has specialised PTSD for the last twenty years writes, “It is essential that the unresolved activation (from trauma) locked in the nervous system be discharged. This transformation has nothing to do with memory. It has to do with the process of completing our survival instincts.” So our memories are locked, or frozen in the musculature of our bodies, encoded in our nervous system. Stored in the collective mind. For some, time transfigures our memories, allowing us to slip into soft pockets of recollection where we can rest amidst the turbulence of the waves of the world. For others, time imprisons us in the terror of the past.
Most of us cannot truly live in the now. For if we did, we would not plan a party, book a holiday, buy treats for a beach picnic. That would be the future not the present. All we can do, really, is live with as much mindfulness as we can and know that time is cyclical like the cycles of nature, the cycles of life and death. And as Irish poet and mystic John O’Donohue said, “When time is reduced to linear progress, it is emptied of presence.”
Cher performs If I Could Turn Back Time.
Quotations: The Rocky Horror Show. Time Warp by Richard O’Brien/Patricia Quinn/Nell Campbell/Charles Gray. Lewis Carroll Alice in Wonderland.
Photographs by Hideyuki Katagiri and Michael Melford.