April 12, 2004 | Peter

About Time

I’ve been thinking about time for one of my coming books. Like so many genuinely important things, we pay very little attention to it in our modern society. There just isn’t enough time…
Before we invented the idea of continuous, linear time, human societies tended to think in terms of time cycles. Interestingly, one of the more famous such circular ‘calendars’, the Mayan, is due to be completed, and presumably start again, in about eight years. Ultimately, of course, even the ‘big bang’ theory of creation suggests time cycles, a kind of fundamental universal pulse.
One of the good things about circular time is that it matches our personal experience of life. Each of us who lives long enough goes through the same basic stages, or life cycle: birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age, death. Each of these stages brings with it challenges, triumphs and failures. They make us what we are as individuals, and ultimately our society what it is.
In so-called primitive societies they recognised the fact that we all go through similar stages, and that some go through certain extreme experiences. They constructed a whole series of rituals to mark these stages, and give them personal, social and spiritual meaning. Birth and death, in particular, were marked with a seriousness that is rarely matched in modern society. They understood that a birth was significant to the whole community, not just the immediate family as is the case now. And they knew that death was similarly important, and that the dead had to be properly mourned. Our society is hopelessly inadequate in its treatment of the inevitable fact of death. The best we can come up with – not entirely useless – is ‘counselling’ by professionals or a few hackneyed words from some book or by some worthy as the dead are laid to rest.
As we all find out sooner or later, death and grieving are BIG issues for us as individuals, and should be for society as a whole. Losing someone close is a very big deal, personally and socially. We not only lose a person, we lose a central relationship as well. This loss brings about structural changes to our lives, psychological if nothing else. For instance, consider the loss of a parent: as someone put it to me recently, ‘When you lose a parent, it matters because suddenly you realise that you are now on the front line.’ However you felt personally relating to that parent, their death has great and unavoidable symbolic relevance. Such a death must entail a process of appropriate grieving.
Grieving is a long process, taking months or years to be fully worked through. In a society that demands instant results, we simply don’t have time for such stuff. Someone who can’t ‘move on’ and get back to work and life as usual faces medication or other more or less subtle punishment for their failure. Losing a close one is one of the most important things that will happen to us as individuals, but we give it scant attention and minimal time.
Some of the ancient rituals involve transition from one life stage to another. One important transition was from adolescence to adulthood. With girls this often took a form that related specifically to the onset of puberty, or potential motherhood, which could be physically specific. In boys it related more to the acceptance of a social role, usually adult responsibility. Sometimes this took the form of a painful or frightening ordeal, the point being that the boy had to show his capacity to face these things and through such fortitude gain recognition as a man.
Considering the obvious problem we have with young males now, our failure to recognise the need to mark the transition – and thus identify the need to change behaviour – is clear. Take our footballers, so much in the news lately. Physically powerful men, they all too often lack any real sense of personal responsibility and have consciences more like ten year olds than adults.
Our lives are completely out of balance these days. We enjoy a very few years before we are saturated with information on how we should behave, look and buy. Contemporary capitalism recognises even toddlers as growing consumers, and the adolescent is now king in terms of mass marketing. Then we become productive workers for few decades (although this working stage is getting longer), and then we join the parasitic elderly, no good to anyone in a society that decreasingly values life experience.
The reconstruction of time into linear form has generated a society that is remarkably productive, albeit at great and ultimately unsustainable cost to the natural world. But with all this wealth, this social experience creates an ever-narrower space for us to live out our lives. There is little time for meaningful things, and more and more time for trivial experiences like shopping, eating out and being ‘entertained’. A return to a structure of time that suits us as biological, psychological, social and spiritual beings, not just workers and consumers, seems only rational.
Time as we know it now – defined as a continuous, linear process – is essentially a social construction. Earlier human societies, which centred on the natural cycles of sun and moon, understood time differently. Linear time as a concept and experience is mostly the result of millenarian religion and is sustained by accelerating technological change, but it has a minimal place for the individual human life, which is our existential essence. Most of us know this, we endure the mismatch, and we do not find great personal contentment however much wealth we acquire. The basic construction of time itself is not suited to the fact of the usual human life span and its various changes. We need to reassert the basic need for a conception of time that meets the changing needs of biological organisms with complex psychological, social and spiritual aspects, which is what we happen to be.

Posted by Peter at 4:32 pm | Comments Off on About Time |
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