Temporal thoughts from a roller coaster
But if the Religion of Humanity were as sedulously cultivated as the supernatural religions are (and there is no difficulty in conceiving that it might be much more so), all who had received the customary amount of moral cultivation would up to the hour of death live ideally in the life of those who are to follow them.
- John Stuart Mill, “The Utility of Religion”
You get older and you find your sense of time more elastic, less linear than it used to be.
Time was when time was a river. It flowed. Yesterday was gone and tomorrow yet to come. What was next happened, and it was new, and then (no regrets about this when you’re young) it was old.
You get older and a new metaphor seems appropriate. Time often seems a roller coaster, with intermittent periods of great speed (where did that week go?) and slow motion (the laundry’s done, a poem’s been drafted, gazpacho’s made . . . and it’s not even noon!).
There are stretches when I have the sense of moving ahead (today did indeed follow yesterday), but they’re followed by sharp curves into some atemporal realm (e.g., walking in the forest; engaging with art). And on occasion, I find myself not “ahead” in what had been deemed to be the future, but somehow “behind”—approaching and within sight of some already-experienced place and time—as one does after the first round on the roller coaster.
Without the structure of a Monday-to-Friday job, I occasionally have to ascertain the day of the week with a glance at the newspaper. I have two paper and two electronic calendars, but I’m increasingly inclined to muddle today’s obligations with tomorrow’s, and yesterday’s events with events that occurred a week ago.
Such chronometric incompetence may be a function of age. And as a person deemed here and there, in the odd museum or art gallery, to be a “senior” citizen (for the record: I do not look down upon junior citizens), I find myself increasingly engaged with the past—both my own and the past more generally.
With a notable loss this year—my mother died in May—and as other losses mount, I’m occasionally visited by voices from the past. Which can be salutary, I think: our most intimate conversations are with the people we love, and they, whether living or dead, are as present in our imaginations as they are, or were, in the corporeal world.
These inner conversations make us human. They draw on our lived experience and put our “moral cultivation” to work.
It is with the anticipation of response that we opine, report and ask questions. In all our exchanges, imagined and real, we scarcely notice that in that anticipation, a largely unknown past shapes the present moment, or that the present observation is often an evolving take on the past. But it is in this interplay that we “live ideally” in others, and they in us.
Jamie MacKinnon © 2014