The Lost Present

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


Essay about the essence of time, and the way humans cope with the ensuing problem by opting for a linguistic solution.

Submitted: August 18, 2018

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Submitted: August 18, 2018

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The Lost Present

 

Due to the way the brain works, human beings are usually aware of the phenomena that govern their lives; one of the most obvious ones being time. Trying to cram as many activities into a limited amount of time available to the individual, becomes a growing struggle. Time seems increasingly to be in short supply. Consequently, an increasing number of people experience stress caused by the lack of time available to do everything one wants to do. Often people who suffer from that particular type of stress often get advice that boils down to enjoying the present more than one was used to do; also known as living in the moment, or enjoying the present. It sounds like good advice, but what if that advice tells you to make use of a concept that doesn’t really exist. Ludicrous as it may sound, having a closer look at the essence of time may show that the human concept of the present is nothing but a figment of the imagination? Shouldn’t the advice to stressed out people be turned into: just switch off your negative thinking? It is worth having a closer look at the concept of time, and the human idea of what makes up the present.
Time is linked to movement. The wind moves, sound moves, light moves, objects move and time itself moves. In essence, everything moves. It may seem strange, but don’t forget that objects show movement, even the stationary ones. An example should clarify this. Imagine this. There is a brick on the table. Look at it for a while. It quickly becomes clear that the brick lying there is not going to be successful in the 100 yard dash. Yet, there is a lot of movement going on. The tricky part being that it all happens on another scale than we can observe with the naked eye. All movement takes place on another level. According to quantum physics, the smallest particles that make up the brick are moving continuously, just think about the electrons moving in their orbits around the nucleus of the atom, or the positive spin or negative spin found in even smaller particles; there is movement galore. One can simply say that if movement has occurred, time has passed, or vice versa.
The fact that times moves is known to human beings from a very young age. Even before a child can tell time on the face of a clock, it is capable of understanding the mother’s message: “You are going to bed when the big hand is here.” A sentence usually followed by pointing to a position on the face of the clock. The child then regularly checks the progression of the hands along the face of the clock, proving that it somehow, unconsciously understands that time moves forward. The child may even think that the clock is time itself, whereas mature human beings should know that clocks are just visual representations of time devised by humans, just as calendars are. Both are probably attempts to compartmentalize time, because the human mind really needs compartments for everything in order to make sense of the physical world. That’s probably why we have neat time frames such as seconds and minutes, and everything that is derived from those, neat little chunks of time. Unfortunately, Albert Einstein proved in his theory of relativity that time is also relative and that the chunks of time dreamt up by man are not as fixed as our clocks on earth make us believe. In order to follow the train of thought about the present, it is not necessary to go into all that. It will suffice to remember that times moves along.
To human beings, the past must always have been an easy thing to understand, because it can be remembered. A mentally healthy individual can remember the past in some detail. Individuals and the species as a collective can remember the past, because of everything that was recorded in some form or other. Buildings, paintings, drawings, stories, archeological finds are all records of that past, so they constitute a type of memory, one can look back on them, or to put it another way, the past can be perceived.
A similar argument can be construed for the future. Human beings continuously try to imagine what the future could look like, and they love it; hence the popularity of science fiction.  It is the basis for using our diaries to write down our appointments, and it is the basis for all the planning we do. When planning, we’re just trying to envisage what the future will bring us. No matter how important some individuals assume planning to be, in essence it is nothing more than predicting the future, a bit like doing a weather forecast, and just as in weather forecasts, the further away in the future we’re trying to envisage what’s going to happen, the more insecure the forecasts become. The reason for this is that we don’t know the future, it can’t be remembered like the past can be remembered; it is the great unknown.
When having a look at the movement of time, it must be clear that any type of movement indicates that something comes from somewhere and it is going somewhere, let’s call it its trajectory. When talking about time that trajectory is a continuum. There is no sudden stopping of the movement. As a matter of fact, Einstein claimed that in order to be able to travel in time one has to travel at the speed of light, in order for it to stop. At that speed, an object doesn’t seem to move anymore, so a photon reaching the eye shows the movement of an object frozen in time. By travelling backwards faster than the speed of light, one would see the object perceived at an earlier stage. In essence the movement of time means that the future gets eaten up by time, and the past is added to without cessation. 
In order to truly understand what’s going on, it is helpful to think about borders. Our memories are bordered by the last thing that happened, irrespective of the chunk of time, seconds etc. that have elapsed. A parallel situation exists for the future, irrespective of the chunk of time, the future hasn’t happened yet, so there is a border. These two borders obviously coincide, one moment a thing has not happened yet, so it is part of the future, the next moment it has happened, and it is part of the past. From a logical point of view there cannot be an intermittent stage, a kind of grey area, where there is neither past nor future. The tricky part is that the border between those two compartments of time travel forward. It doesn’t even matter that it does this at the speed of light, the simple fact that the border keeps changing, means that it can never be pin-pointed. According to human understanding, the present would be lying between the past and the future. In reality that is a shared border of infinite smallness that cannot even be pin-pointed. One can say that, in essence, it is a border without substance, because it cannot even be perceived. So there is no state of being which we can call the present.
For human beings this must be a truly unacceptable situation. We like things to be in a particular state. The word “being’ is essential to how we think about our own existence. Even the word human being contains this word. It is also essential for the way we cope with the world around us. When we encounter a new, unfamiliar object we ask: “What is this?” Very tellingly, we don’t ask: “What will this become?” In our modern age, millions of people struggle with the question: “Who am I?” Being gives substance to our existence.  The need for that substance could have caused man to come up with the idea of there being a now, a present, however vague that is.
To the unthinking, the word “now” could be the simplest word there is, but at closer inspection, this linguistic device gets used in a rather complex way. A couple of examples will show this.


Example 1
“Now is the summer of our discontent.”
This famous line by Shakespeare refers to an entire season.


Example 2
“I will do it now.”
In reality this means I’m going to do it very soon, probably within seconds, but timewise, it tells you something about a future action.

 

Example 3
“Now is not the time to buy a house.”
In this case, the time aspect is extremely vague. What does it mean? Today? This week? This month? This year? During the recession? Without additional clues in the context we simply don’t know what now means.
 

Example 4
Question: “When did you hurt yourself?
Answer: “Just now.”
This is a clear reference to a past event.
 

The word “present” also gets used in a very vague way. Just look at the following sentence:
“At present, we don’t plan for every eventuality.”

Here the phrase “at present” means in this day and age or nowadays. Again a clear example of a blurry time frame.
 

In conclusion, one can say that the human concept of the present is mainly a linguistic device that gets used to cope with a natural phenomenon, that doesn’t fit with our sense of belonging. The innate inability to cope with the continuous transition between past and future made it necessary for mankind to come up with an artificially helpful name for a continuous state of flux when dealing with the concept of time. Unfortunately, it makes the advice to people who suffer from stress, and who should alter their thinking patterns to achieve happiness a bit vague. Advising people to enjoy the present more, is an empty phrase. More fitting would be to advise them to stop having the thinking patterns of the past and enjoy the world more in the future.

 
 


© Copyright 2018 Bert Broomberg. All rights reserved.

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