(This is the twentieth in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)
Image via Wikipedia
'Cause it's time this time in time with your time
And its news is captured, for the queen to use...
And I get the urge for going
when the meadow grass is turning brown
And the summertime is falling down, and winter's
closing in. (Joni Mitchell)
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there (Bob Dylan)
I've been aware of the time going by
They say in the end it's a wink of an eye
And when the morning sun comes beaming in
I get up and do it again. Amen. (Jackson Browne)
One of the most influential courses I took in college — funny how many of these posts wind up looping back 40 years — was a course in Oriental Philosophy, taught by Dr. Lik Kuen Tong, and one of the texts we studied in detail was the I Ching, or Book of Changes. One of the concepts that I remember Dr. Tong talking about — although from this distance I cannot vouch for the accuracy of my memory, was the Gate of Heaven, understood to be the present moment, the magic portal through which the future passes and is transformed in passing into the past. We can never directly experience the future, and the past is available to us only through whatever impressions are made in present time as the future slides through us in becoming the past. All of the action is happening right now. We can never escape the present, it's all we have: Now. And now. And now again. (My wife's mom, for many years, was fond of the saying, "The future is a mystery; yesterday is history; today is a gift." I don't think she intended the play on the word "present," but it works.)
So there's something really obvious about time and our experience of it, but also something deeply profound and mysterious about it as well. One of the mysteries has to do with our conflicted relationship with the present moment. On the one hand, we are locked into the present. As children, that presents no problem to us. But the older we become, the more we seem to become programmed to avoid being fully present to ourselves in the present moment. We spend a great deal of our mental energy worrying about or planning for things that have not happened yet, and/or looking back at the past, re-living it in our minds, and trying to understand its implications for our present lives. We spend so much of our time NOT being present to the present, that pretty much every religious tradition, endorses some set of disciplines involving meditation or breathing or prayer or mindfulness training, the goal of which is to bring us back to full alertness and awareness of the present moment. We have to re-learn how to Be Here Now.
Another mysterious thing about time has to do with its relativity, how the same number of seconds or minutes or hours can be experienced as being either much longer or much shorter that it actually was. Artists and musicians frequently talk about how time seems to slip away when they are productively engaged. (Time flies when you're having fun.) Students often watch the clock with disbelief at how slowly time is going by. (One of the professors at my college was fond of addressing students he caught sneaking glances at the clock with the words "Time will pass, Mr. _____. The question is, will you?")
And perhaps the greatest mystery of all about time is that in fact we don't know what's on the other side of it. We're given our three score years and ten, more or less, if we're lucky, on this planet, and then… what? Some of us make the Leap of Faith and imagine for ourselves an eternal afterlife of some sort. Some of us. Like Dylan and Joni Mitchell about, resort to metaphor to allude to the after life winter or darkness or emptiness or endless sleep. Some of us worry some about all of that. Some of us don't.
Then there are the scientists who are interested in the phenomenon of time as the fourth dimension. The cool graphic at the top of the page illustrates, among other things, how the essence of any object cannot be grasped in snapshots. A snapshot gives you something but also necessarily withholds something as well.
What else? Well, there's the ethical issue, which I think is central to our mission as educators, about what amounts to the responsible use of time. Students — and adults — often become quite adept at "wasting time," or to use another phrase that is perhaps more apt, "killing time." Our contemporary culture in the U.S. seems to be in some ways to be a death star devoted to cranking out more and more diversions and amusements and ways to kill time. I observe on a daily basis a staggering number of man-hours being simply frittered away by students who apparently have nothing better to do than hang out with their friends and skateboard and play video games. If that makes me sound like a crotchety old guy, okay, I am that. But still. I get it that many students are stressed and they need their down time, as we all do. But one of my core beliefs as an educator is that humans have a duty — I don't think it's too strong to say a sacred duty —to develop habits of mind and habits of practice which help to create value in the world and in the lives of people around us. I'm not talking about monetary value, although it is not inaccurate to say that "time is money." I'm talking about using time to do something or make something that will be of some conceivable use or pleasure or assistance to somebody else other than ourselves. There's some kind of calculus of value involved in the management of time. I'm not saying we should be working at every moment to make the world a better place: that ratio is not 100%. But it's not zero either. How to do the numbers in a way that makes sense, that's something we should all be thinking about.