The Time Factor

“The Moving Finger writes;

and, having writ, Moves on:

nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

— Omar Khayyám

Electoral reform is the talk of the day. And time is of essence; for some politicians it seems to be moving too slowly and for others it is too fast – all depending on what their expectations or hidden agenda are. Lovers will find here a “déjà vu” phenomenon. When they had a tryst with their lover and she or he was late to come, time had seemed to be an eternity; and when the tryst was over and the time to part had come the same time had given the impression that it had flown.

Psychologists will tell us these are well-known phenomena; in fact they recognized that there are many time-paradoxes in our lives, a matter of psychological pressure or interpretation. Who among us has not felt a journey to an unknown place to be long yet on the return trip it had appeared shorter? There is also what is called Kappa Effect: the trip from Port Louis to Quatre Bornes by car will take us 45 minutes; from QB to Mahebourg, if we go fast, another 45 minutes, yet the second leg will appear longer just because there is more mileage.

When I think of the past, it’s usually about events which happened years ago. Then I ask myself: what about yesterday? And as I proceed along the same line of thinking, I find myself face to face with the instant, just minutes ago, when I was not typing but watching TV. Well, now that is also in the past, is it not? This means that the past is just microseconds away. I feel a bit uncomfortable to realize that that past is so close to me. And the future? We generally think of years ahead. But it could be hours ahead, is it not? Oh well, it is also minutes away from us – and then microseconds ahead. Oh God, it is like the past, just so close to my skin.

I get that uncanny feeling that literally I am being squeezed between two huge rectangular blocks of darkness, one literally behind me and the other ahead of me.

But generally I do not have that sensation, maybe because I have come to look at the present as an assemblage of everything that comes within my field of vision. If I have passed through a door minutes ago and then sit in an armchair with the door visible to me, I would not think of my passing through it as the past. It is as if my consciousness bundles all these immediate past and future events into the present. Yet we know that strictly speaking it cannot be so. The passing through the door is a unique event; it cannot be reproduced with everything appearing at the same place and time. Is it possible that I am after all a zombie walking in a foggy space with the past following me like a shadow and the future opening up to the movement of my belly? Or is it that all this is just a figment of my imagination, that the past, present and future do not really exist after all?

Well, I must admit that as I walk – taking one step ahead, lifting my left sole and sending it ahead pass my right foot – I am leaving the present, and the past is sticking to my backside like a glue. And as my left foot lands on terra firma it is in fact literally stepping into the future. And that unmistaken feeling that I am just a squeezed, deformed shadow in-between the two jaws of a vice – the past and the present – should haunt me like anything. Fortunately it does not. My present is just a question of a fraction of a second, except that my consciousness and self-awareness tend to distort my conception of time.

“The specious present is the time duration wherein a state of consciousness is experienced as being in the present.” But evolution, culture and society have come to teach me to be comfortable in-between these two tyrants.

Or is it possible that after all they do not exist at all?

The past seems to be just a question of memory.

And the future has just to do with my thinking power, may be contaminated with some social conventions. Or it may not, according to many psychologists, be so simple.

My memory goes on telling me that there are many things that have happened and gone by — all recorded in some of my brain circuits and which I call the past, because none will be repeated exactly as they had occurred before. And then another part of my brain, dipping into stored experience, generates new visions and expectations; it tells me that other events are going to occur, these I call the future.

But the fact remains that my being awake brings all the past, present and future into focus. If I am asleep, or in deep coma, then none of them has any significance except for the onlookers.

Like someone who is standing outside the universe: when he looks inside that universe he will find the earth going round the sun, the sun running around on a 250-million-year circle, galaxies moving and running away madly from each other. For that someone where will be present, past or future? He will, after all, be seeing everything at the same instant (taking for granted that the speed of light is infinite.

Then what is time? We are told that it does not exist: only events exist.

And the new generations do not talk of events but of information, which goes on changing and morphing into new patterns and relationships.

The sad thing is that once the past has happened it cannot come back to square one, as before; the reel cannot be played backwards.

Scientists love a dozen of physical formulae. Those involved in the conception of evolution of time refers always to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the only formula concerned with time. If we let a cup and saucer fall down and break, there is no way of going back to reassemble the bits and pieces together as before. Those scientists talk of this as ‘the arrow of time’; the dice has been cast, nothing can change its ultimate fate. Some scientists give a nice analogy. Take a pencil and hold it vertical in the centre of a circle; such a pencil could potentially fall at any place, say in 360 directions. Now let it go; it falls and finally settles in one direction, and that is the direction of time. It is said that once our cosmos had such a choice, when no events, no galaxies, no life existed, as if the pencil was still vertical. But due to gigantic changes that pencil fell and events were precipitated in a given direction, and there was no going back. We are part of that cosmological fate.

“Anticipating the unknown forms the psychological future which always seems to be something one is moving towards, but, like a projection in a mirror, it makes what is actually already a part of memory, such as desires, dreams, and hopes, seem ahead of the observer.”

And that future is so uncertain because we do not know how events and information will interact and what product, what surprise will come out of that interaction. We know what the past has been, not the future, hence the passage from the known to the unknown gives us the sensation of the direction time is flowing. Is it possible that all our customs, traditions, rituals and culture are just attempts to cajole us into thinking that we can harness the coming uncertainties and unknown?

Do we flow down the river of time or is it that we are enjoying ourselves by remaining put in the riverbed, with the fluid-time flowing in between our feet and legs? Is time linear, as in Cartesian thinking, where the coming back of Jesus Christ would be a miracle? Or, as in Hinduism, is time cyclic – and thus the coming of a new avatar is not a miracle; he is just part and parcel of a process?

To make this process of belief more interesting, we may tickle ourselves by thinking whether we go into the future or is it that the future comes to us? If I am blighted by a serious health problem and find myself stuck to my home, I would see the sun rising and setting everyday, and many other events going by. I may look upon this as myself immobilized at home and the future coming to my doorstep to meet me. But if I were going out to work, visiting friends, taking vacations, going abroad for sightseeing – to the World Cup in Brazil– always being conscious at the back of my mind that the sun is rising and setting every day, then I may have the feeling that I am walking into the future head on.

I wonder whether the fact of staying put at home, with the lack of activity, waiting for the future to come to me is not after all a morbid process, definitely leading to an unhealthy state of discomfort and physical, mental and psychological decline. Maybe going out to meet the future would be healthier.

So most probably most of us, the more fortunate, do walk into the future, with the past stuck to us like a shadow.

We are even told that all this talk of the past being behind, and future being ahead are culturally determined.

In some language the past is said to be ahead of the present: after all it came BEFORE the present; and the future is behind the present, it is coming after! It is easy to visualize: if we draw a straight line we’ll have to put the past at the zero point, then comes the present at the 5th point mark and the future at the 10th point mark. What came first and which comes last? The past is ahead of the future. It seems that in Chinese the day before yesterday is called “front day” and the day after tomorrow is known as “behind day”. In Hindi, yesterday and tomorrow make use of the same word “kal” meaning “the day remote from today”.

But the interesting thing about all these mental activities is that I can take stock of what had already happened, through my memory and other media facilities. I can think about them, ponder on their significance, on their effect on my own fate and decide to steer my life in such a way as to benefit fully from those bygone events and experience. That is said to be planning for the future, an activity characteristic of Homo Sapiens.

And if you want to twist and pull your own leg a bit more, then throw in the concept of cause and effect so dear to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. We are so convinced that we know which comes first and which follows. If you decide to get married, you plan for a house, for the furniture, the curtains, the jewels, for a car and so on. Finally you get them ready long before the marriage. The latter was the cause – yet it came after the effects! It is said by some that planning for the future does reverse the usual relationship between cause and effect! Just to remind us how tricky our thinking, beliefs, psychology and… future can be. If you decide to dig further, then be prepared to find yourself in the mysterious world of Quantum Physics.

And how did these phenomena of psychological paradoxes, thinking, beliefs and planning arise are yet to be understood and explained fully.

Meanwhile, let us enjoy the present so that we may live to cherish it — later!


* Published in print edition on 27 June 2014

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