What Is Time, Anyway?

rosetta coffee picture

What is time, anyway?  Slowing down.  Grinding the coffee.  Boiling the water.  Measuring the amounts. Smelling the coffee that almost always promises more than it delivers.  Looking out the window.

One of my relatives received a difficult medical diagnosis a while back. He is doing very well. However, the severity of the diagnosis made some of us stop and freeze momentarily, like rabbits on a lawn when a dog runs by.

We all know that bad news can come. We just don’t expect it to come at this particular time and at this particular place. That kind of news changes things, blocks the determined trajectory.  It’s like a doorknob coming off in your hands on a Tuesday afternoon as you are clutching your list and rushing out for groceries. Your plans were simply different for the time you had.  The door won’t open.  That kind of news makes you move in a different direction.

With all the ensuing medical discussions, something changed in my relative. He began to think about his daily experiences in a different way, to taste his moments differently, to mark them, to savor them. He loves to read about physics. As he reflected on his medical situation one day, he said to me, “What is time, anyway?” A simple enough question–but it struck me like an unseen low-hanging tree branch.  I haven’t been the same since.

What is time, anyway? I remember reading a letter Albert Einstein wrote to his good friend’s family after his friend’s death. He said that for physicists the “separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”

Only an illusion. Physicists sometimes refer to the “block universe” theory (or “block time” theory).  This theory describes space-time as an unchanging four-dimensional “block” as opposed to the view of the world as a three-dimensional space regulated by the passage of time. In this “block time” view, all of the history of the universe would simply exist–like a mural, so to speak.

Physicists talk about this kind of thing.  If it were true, I can’t help but imagine–my life would be one tiny tiny segment in that vast mural. If you took a “microscope” and looked at my little segment, you would see all the variations of my whole life in them, all the choices I made, step by step. There would be few simple brush strokes in such a mural. Each tiny segment would probably, upon closer examination, be more like an increasingly intricate and complex tapestry–events, circumstances, people, conversations, thoughts, reactions, all weaving and interacting with each other in variegated colors. If you looked at my specific part of the mural, you would see the beginning of it, and the also the end of it, all in one viewing.  A life would seem less like a movie and more like a landscape.  So in one material sense, in a block universe, I would always be fully alive. Of course, I would always be fully dead, too.

It would be all there in the block. I can’t help but hang out in that block. It simply is, and I am a part of it. You can’t see the picture when you are inside the frame, and I am definitely inside this frame. In fact, I am so inside this frame that I can’t even see the frame–I’m not even sure the frame is there. So perhaps the medieval mystics who talked about God always experiencing one eternal present time, well, perhaps they would be right. God is the only one I know that would be outside this “frame.”

But back to the physicists discussing the issue, not those medieval mystics and theologians. I understand that a block universe theory is helpful for other equations and scientific observations to make sense. That kind of thing is so beyond me. Yet even on a sensory level, I realize I have no assurance that my senses let me know anything very specific about time. I certainly haven’t cornered the market in even understanding sound or smell or sight. Bats can hear more than we can and dogs can smell more than we can. Some birds show plumage in ultraviolet that humans cannot even see–the light spectrum is wider than we can perceive. Perhaps time is wider than our specific sense of consciousness can experience, perhaps much wider. We have no assurance our perceptions always tell us “accurately” what is.

What is time, anyway? This morning I made coffee very slowly and looked out through the fog.  I see the place where my two sons and I played tag when they were small, many, many years ago. In my mind’s eye, I see the image of us running back and forth, breathing heavily, laughing.  If those physicists are right, maybe we are always playing there.

Taylor Field

Upside Down Devotion


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