A Goon with an Arrow

Proof #755 that humans are irrational beings: how angry we get at time.

It’s not just that time aggravates us, the way other inevitables like bad weather or incompetent bosses do. Annoying as such things are, we know we can endure them because they’re temporary. The weather will change. An incompetent supervisor will be promoted. Such is the way of the world.

But time is by definition infinite. The sequence of the universe moves in one direction, and it will continue in that same direction long after there is no longer any such thing as an earth year by which we measure it. Or even a “we” to do the measuring.

Lately, I’ve been bombarded by time. I’m reading From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll, which is a layperson’s guide to cosmology and a theory of time. I just finished Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a novel about the effects of time as the punk-rock generation ages. And I have a birthday in two weeks, closer to 40 than I ever thought possible.

All of this together has made the world an unnerving place. I used to sit at a stoplight and calculate my chances of making it to my next appointment less than five minutes late. I’d block out a certain number of minutes for that appointment, then go to the next one, and so on until it was time to go home and go to bed.

Now, the same stoplight throws me into a philosophical crisis about the meaning of time and my relationship to it. The measurement of time is arbitrary, so why should I be a slave to it? On the other hand, the direction of time is linear, so I can never get back any moment I squander. Time is a gift, but one I can’t really “use”. It’s an inescapable fact of the world I live in, and it will go on regardless of my perception of it.

No wonder I get headaches.

I’m a Methodist, so I know a little bit about John Wesley’s attitude toward time. He never wanted to waste a single moment in which he might be occupied with the things of God. I admire his dedication, even as I roll my eyes at his obsession. Had modern psychology been around when the Methodists were named, we might today be called the OCD Club.

Personally, I”m not so able to conjure up the energy (or maybe guilt) needed to keep such a tight reign on time. I”m not driven to become the master of time, so that it serves my will–which seems like an unreasonable goal anyway.

Instead, I’m trying to think of time the same way I think of oxygen or calories. It’s something I need, but not something I can ever possess. I “use” it only in the sense that I’m constantly exchanging it for something else, whether relationship or experience or employment or whatever.

Sean Carroll talks about “the arrow of time.” Jennifer Egan calls time a “goon.” But maybe time isn’t an enemy. Maybe it’s currency that we do not and cannot earn. All we can do is invest it, knowing that our return will never be more time.

I’ll be thinking about this later, I’m sure. If you see me stopped at a green light, please honk with compassion.

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