The other day I was on the bus with my wife and son when a senior citizen started chatting with us. He made some half-witty remarks regarding fishburgers and added offhandedly that a good son ought to always listen to his mother. Then my son in his curious innocence or unblemished honesty asked the elderly man if he had a Mommy too.
The man sighed and said that his mother was looking down from heaven as we spoke. Thank God, the matter was settled there and then, and my son did not ask any more probing questions on the uncomfortable topic of death and the matter of the possibility (or non-possibility) of an afterlife.
Three different generations were interacting and clashing at that moment. We had a four-year-old child, a middle-aged couple (my wife and I) and an unknown elderly man (presumably in his late seventies). In fact, our combination comprised the quintessential arc of life. We come into the world tabula rasa (clean-slated), flourish (to use a Greek term for the highest stage of personal accomplishment) and become old and die.
In my mind, I fast-forwarded this scene about say forty years into the future. And I saw myself as the elderly man facing equally challenging questions by another four-year-old. Essentially such was not only the cycle of life, but it was inevitable. Time, like a gravitational force, exerts and wields its power and influence on us, and just like gravity, it acts upon us at all times (no pun intended); it is hardly perceptible, almost invisible pushing us hither and thither in different directions.
We are eventually subdued by its force; whether we fully accept the fact of our mortality or try to resist it with all our might and force within our innermost beings, we will end up losing this battle against immovable and stern Father Cronus.
The work of Father Time will become perhaps most visible on our faces. They will undergo changes, when wrinkles appear and date us the same time tree trunk circles inform us of the age of a tree. Our hair and teeth will fall out, and our quest will have only one exit or destination: death. We cannot cheat our way out of it; the use of make-up, wigs and false teeth cannot save us from this inescapable endpoint.
Our very existence from Day (or, more precisely, Moment) One is measured by time and space, in other words, spacetime, which is as tight and closely associated and inseparable as the two sides of a coin, or the pervading elements of yin and yang.
The same way we cannot escape space, there is no dodging time. We are caught in the webs of time; while in space we can at least move around a little, by foot or in cars and planes, time can be only counted and measured but not traveled in. There might be at best minor adjustments, such as the artificial daylight saving time or the physical trip across different time zones with its subsequent lagging and time-adjusting jet lags. But that is about all we can do with time.
Sure, one might say, we are all mortals, and that includes the syllogistic and real version of Socrates; our days are numbered, counted and accounted for and sooner or later we will reach the end of our existence. That is a truism and anyone who believes otherwise may be merely a wishful thinking escapist fool.
But what I find interesting here is that time has us firmly rooted to the ground. This is not just about its endpoint death, but the fixed grasp that time has on us, and all we can do is circle around its gravitational wheel like a cog in a machine, like the planets revolving around the sun.
This loop keeps ticking at all times, and it starts off as a loose noose around our neck, imperceptibly but steadily tightening with each tick. The moment is gone quicker than we think, faster than we can shout Amen or any other word for that matter.
It seems I was a lonely teen just yesterday, a proud father today and an old toothless man tomorrow. If this seems a little bleak and depressing, one could take my son's “game” analogy that we are rather moving through the different levels and stages of a lifetime.
I like Julian Barbour's idea of Platonia, the illusion of time, the claim that science cannot prove or pin down the existence of time, that there is no definite or connecting flow or link between individual moments. I see also very little connection between the teen and the adult, and my past does seem like a distant and vague dream.
However, time (or whatever it is) is writing its message across my body, is pushing (bullying?) me forward, is not letting me go until ...
my time has come.
If there is an afterlife (which I think possible), then there might be another eternal load of time dumped upon us. In the meantime (!) and because we do not have an endless supply of time and world, we can follow Andrew Marvell's marvelous advice to his “Coy Mistress”: Since we cannot make time stop or stand still, we better make it run or pass more quickly. At best, we can only enjoy the time we are given, make the best and most of it all; at worst, we can delude ourselves that the lassos of time will spare us and that we can get away from its stronghold.