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What is time exactly?

Hourglass (Pixabay photo)

We often act as though we control time. We measure it and cut it up into segments, so that we can exploit it to our own advantage. But the facts are clearly the reverse: time can neither be controlled by, nor does it care about, us. Time is beyond our comprehension and it proceeds on its own schedule.

We measure existence and call it time. In the Western world, we see time as a precise sequence, a chronology of events from the past, to the present, through to the future. In other cultures, time is not divided into a tripartite, but allowed the freedom to flow into categories of becoming with verbs effortlessly unbroken. It is clear that these formations of time are human constructions.

(There is a scientific understanding of time that debates its place within material reality. I am addressing the philosophical sense of it as a conscious experience.)

We live in time, without contemplating the limits it places upon us. We have no ability to make time reconcile to our plans: time does not stand still while we plan; it just keeps rolling on. In this absence of regulatory power, we rebuff reality and use all sorts of aphorisms to gain a semblance of jurisdiction.

People love to say that time heals all wounds, or that time is money. Both statements are equally absurd. Time does not heal physical or emotional wounds. In fact, I find it insulting when people advise mourners that all they have to do is wait and they will get over their deep feelings of loss. That is quite preposterous. Grief does not go away. It stays with us. Individuals must work hard to get back to leading a functional life without their loved ones. They don’t forget them, or get over the loss, as one might heal from an illness. Even healing from a major illness leaves marks or residue. Time does not do anything. It is not an actor, or a thing that effects change itself.


We can consider time as a resource. Notably, in the Book of Ecclesiastes, we read of the enigmatic presence of time in our lives:

“A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:

“A time for being born and a time for dying, A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted; A time for slaying and a time for healing, A time for tearing down and a time for building up; A time for weeping and a time for laughing, A time for wailing and a time for dancing; A time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, A time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces; A time for seeking and a time for losing, A time for keeping and a time for discarding; A time for ripping and a time for sewing, A time for silence and a time for speaking; A time for loving and a time for hating; A time for war and a time for peace.”

In this sense, time has its functionality. We can use the intervals that time provides to build and create, to discard and uproot. We cannot control time, but we can utilize it. We can dance and we can cry. This usage is up to us. But we remain the performers, not the managers.

In this context, we live with the relativity of time. I cannot engage Einstein’s logic of relativity, as it affects the space-time continuum; all I can do is point to an awareness of time’s affect on us. Quite simply, when in pain, time moves ever so slowly. But when we are enjoying ourselves, it flies by instantly. Our sense of time’s vibrancy and dynamism depends on our experience and perception of it. We can be having the best time, or the worst. It all depends on us: how we act in time, not how we possess time, or how time acts on us.

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