the past, present, and future
a struggle with theories of time
I have been thinking a lot about time lately, ever since my wife and I got into an argument about time travel. I thought it seemed possible if not plausible that time travel could, in some more advanced Earthly civilization, exist. She disagreed.
The specific details are not important, though they are kind of funny and they do make me look a little stupid, but in the course of the conversation, we realized that we were envisioning time in different ways from one another. The idea of time being linear and monodirectional felt very concrete to her while I struggled to wrap my head around it. I remember being 18, on the verge of leaving for college, terrified and anxious. It was then that I can first recall thinking consciously about time as a calming mechanism — of time not as something that moves, but as something that is still and simultaneous. All moments are happening at once, and we are the ones who move. We only move in one direction — so far. I might argue that we move at different speeds, though that would bring into question what’s more important, our perceptions of time or the ticking of the clock.
I found it calming to consider that somewhere, happening even as I packed my bags to leave home, I was also returning. I took solace in that, some idea that the future was preset or certain because it was already happening. Maybe there isn’t much solace to be had if that idea is taken too far, but in that time of my life, and in times since, I’ve quite liked the idea that I am simultaneously here and also at the next place, and at the place after that. I am both happy and sad and my present self’s motion is what determines my location in time, emotion, experience.
What, or who, is it that moves when it comes to time?
Last week I got to visit the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to set up a partnership between the organization I work for and the museum. I was given a tour of the education collection, a menagerie of taxidermy, cultural artifacts, and NASA’s discards. The collector had a fascination with every item in the large inventory, and told story after story as we walked through, moving from the Mayan Empire to geodes to a human brain in a jar. He stopped the tour beside a cast of fossilized footprints to make a point about bipedalism and the classifications of our earliest ancestors.
The footprints were found at Laetoli in northern Tanzania. They were likely made by Australopithecus afarensis, or “Lucy,” around 3 million years ago. Reading more about them on the Smithsonian website, I come to a Q&A. “We don’t know everything about our early ancestors,” it starts, and I have to laugh, because it kind of feels like we hardly know anything at all. The site says that they probably ate plants and maybe lizards, and that we know that from their teeth. We know that they were bipedal and walked upright, and that they lived in both the trees and on the ground. I’m thinking about how Grizzell Brinley’s toilet was excavated so they could find out what she ate.
The museum collector was not happy with the stages of evolution that we’ve classified our early ancestors into. Specifically, because Lucy could walk upright, naming the next group after that homo erectus doesn’t, in his view, make sense. Homo erectus did use fire, though, so they should be called something to do with that — homo ignatus, maybe. He had it all figured out, all the way to a theory regarding the start of the anthropocene, the current geological age.
So when I’m thinking about time and the moving through of it, I’m pouring all of this together, trying to mix it up and figure out some theory or way to think. We have not always moved through time on our feet, I suppose. We have not moved through it with the light of torches, either. But we have moved.
Or it has moved through us.
I often think I’m going to enjoy philosophy and then I get annoyed with it. But there are some philosophical theories of time that I’ve read up on, and one to which I think I subscribe, though I don’t want to claim to subscribe to any given philosophical idea because someone out there is probably using it for ill-purpose.
Nevertheless, eternalism is the theory that everything, whether past, present, or future, exists. I think this is getting to the heart of what I’m going for, and I certainly like it more than the opposite view of presentism, which is that nothing but the present moment exists. First of all, I believe that time bleeds and that we drag it with us where we go. Sometimes I even wonder if time can’t bleed backwards — if inexplicable preoccupations I have today will come to some head three years from now through no action of my own. You might just be thinking, Helen, you have OCD lol. And that’s true! Maybe superstitions make me a genius, have you considered that? — signed, my OCD.
In seriousness, though, I then got to fatalism, which was like, everything is fixed and we’re all doomed, and I do not think I like that! This is why I’m wary of subscribing wholeheartedly to anything. Rather, I wonder about the uses for eternalism, or for thinking about time as all existing.
If I think about deep time with this, about the first homo-whatevers to use fire, to stand up straight, my head hurts, because that is a LOT of existing, that’s a lot of simultaneity. The dinosaurs are dying out, our ancestors are beginning to stand up straight, Grizzell Brinley is crossing the ocean to America, and I am going to work.
It’s not all that reassuring, either, to think about it in terms of the sins of the past, that they’ll never leave us because they’re always going to exist. All the more reason perhaps to try to deal with them — how, I have no clue. That’s part of what I’m trying to figure out. The desire to dissolve or scrub out parts of history — personal, societal, ancestral — is strong, but I don’t think that’s a solution to relief or absolution either.
But also, with all the time stuff, the sense of shrinking time or simultaneous time or whatever the hell, what I think I’m getting at here is how close I feel in a philosophical and brainy sense to my ancestors, those who lived 200, 300, even 1,000 years ago. Maybe I am attempting to intellectualize closeness because I don’t naturally feel it. It’s probable that everyone feels they don’t quite fit in, that nothing is exactly a good fit because nothing can be made in the mold of who you are, who I am. It’s probable, likely, that I am not special. But I do know that some cultures, some people, connect with themselves through their ancestors, and that family for some means more than the people who gather physically around the table at Christmas. It means those who paved the way. If we look at everything existing at once, then everyone is at that table, figuratively speaking — all of my family, those who have existed and those who will exist. That’s a comforting thought as long as your ancestors are comforting people.
I told a friend that I was longing for haunting the other day, and that’s not entirely true, particularly because as a child I was terrified of hauntings, those that never ended and which drove people insane. I was always certain it would happen to me, despite having only seen a ghost twice — and even then, the same ghost.
A haunting that disturbs isn't what I want. I want in a different sense, in a sense of being with others, a sense of closeness, perhaps because relationships towards which I have to work have come difficult to me. There is some comfort in feeling that they are all here, or that they are all somewhere, right now, living their lives, and yet that comfort is pulled away when I think of Hannah, Jacquero, and Hope, the family Grizzell enslaved. So what, then, is left? What do I do?
That’s enough for now. I’ll see you soon with more on the Sylvesters, their journey to America, and their lives there.
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