I was struck this week by the number of times people talked to me about time, and especially the circles it seems to make. First, one of you noted that the holidays feel like they roll around faster than they used to. (“Ha,” I thought, “just wait till you’re my age!”) Then someone else said that they were “already looking forward to the return of spring.” Finally, I overheard a TV commentator arguing that 2017 was “sure to bring more of the same” because “the basic [economic] cycles haven’t changed.”
This all got me thinking about time, and the fact that we humans often don’t think too clearly about it. Case in point: We have trained ourselves to think of time as turning in circles–and we’ve developed a variety of tools, most notably clocks and calendars, that reinforce this misconception. But it is, nevertheless, a misconception. Time is fundamentally not cyclical. It does not turn, and it certainly does not return.
Sorry, No Returns
Consider, for a moment, the hourly times we tell each day. No matter how many days pass between when I write this sentence and when you read it, 5:00 PM today will never be the same time that 5:00 PM yesterday was–or that 5:00 PM tomorrow will be. Today’s 5:00 PM will only ever be another time at which our clocks say “5:00 PM.”
And the same principle applies to the next Monday on the calendar as well as to the next January 1st. Each will just be another day to which we assign a similar label. None will actually be a prior day returning and repeating itself.
As for the spring that will sprout a few months from now, it won’t be a reprise, either. It will be a brand new spring, unlike any that has sprung before. And if we’re surprised when it brings unexpected things, we really shouldn’t be. Because seasons, weeks, days, minutes, seconds–none of these are ever really repeats. They are all fundamentally new every time.
Seize the Perpetual Newness
Why does this matter? Because I think we tend to systematically underestimate the radical newness of each passing moment. And, as such, we tend to neglect the potential each moment brings to unalterably change the future rather than merely repeating the past.
We probably neglect this potential for good reason. As anyone who has lived through tragedy knows, the events in life that “unalterably change” the future are far too often terrible ones. What’s more, the sense of cyclicality–of predictable repetition and return–typically brings us peace.
Yet it also, unavoidably, deceives us. It whispers that tomorrow will basically be a repeat of today, and that next year will surely be a lot like this one. In fact, such whispers are fictions–the futuristic fables that our clocks and our calendars tell us. Time itself perpetually escapes such repetition. And therefore so can we.
We can always greet tonight, or tomorrow, or the coming year, as if it were fundamentally new. And if we do, we fundamentally won’t be wrong. Despite all the cycles going on around us, and despite the efforts others will continually make to recreate what has been before, there is always a chance for change–because time itself doesn’t do returns, because the world is perpetually reemerging anew.
Remember this the next time you need a new year, even if the calendar doesn’t say December 31st.
Happy New Year!
I love you,