The Enigma of Time

by Jack McLean

Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (date?)
Excerpted from Under the Divine Lote Tree: Essays and Reflections (1996)

Time is a very strange thing. Sometimes it goes so fast we can scarcely imagine that it has gone. At other times, it drags on painfully slowly and no matter what we do, we cannot speed it up. Sometimes there is no time, as when we say: “We are out of time”. Then, at another moment, usually a golden one, we find ourselves saying that we have “all the time in the world”. And how much time is “all the time in the world”? Surely it cannot be measured. And yet we do measure time. We measure it in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years and so on. Unlike the atom, however, time cannot be split. Neither can it be manipulated in any way. But it can be used, foolishly or wisely.

They say time is wasted, but it is not so, for time outlasts everything in the universe. It is our lives we waste. As long as the universe lasts, there shall be time. At the end of time, the universe will also come to an end. We talk about the beginning and the end, but there is no beginning and no end, really. Beginnings and endings are just turning points, significant events, milestones, heart beats or moments of high drama in the lives of individuals or in history. Something has always preceded these beginnings, and something will always follow these endings.

There is no beginning, no end of time. There is only the beginning and the end of the lives of sentient beings, those who are conscious and who can either use or measure time. In one very real sense, there is only the now. That is the only thing we can really possess in time — the now. And even this now we cannot really possess, only experience. The only real thing is really the now. The child is either oblivious of time or feels it as a burden and a mystery. “Daddy, when will I grow up?” the child asks. For the youth, time is an opportunity to affirm the powers of self, to become what one is becoming, to find an identity. Only the aware individual is really conscious of passing time.

We may well fear time, and fear it with reason. For like the tide, as the maxim says, it waits for no man, will not indulge the hesitation of any woman. It is more precious than gold but cannot be bought or sold. Though its effects are ever determinative, it is intangible. It runs more freely than water through our fingers. The only way to truly understand time in this world is to measure and use. This is all that can be done with time. Measure and use.

Time can be a harsh task master. To those who live by the clock, time may even be a slave driver. But the tyrant of time can be governed. The despot of time can be conquered. The way to humble time, the trick in discomfiting Chronos, the Greek god of time, is to goad him into combat, to engage him in sport, to challenge him to defeat you in the arena of the busy life. This contest, this sport, this bloodless war must be waged at sunrise. The gauntlet must be taken up in the early hours of day. The tyrant of time is overmastered by the strategy of the slow and steady pace. The race is won by running long into the hours of evening. Time is routed by the marathon that continues late into the night, even unto the first streaks of light at early dawn.

This old and venerable, kindly father will smile on you if you respect his ways. If time becomes your benefactor and your patron, she will laud your persistent efforts with kindly praise. But I tell you there is a real secret and a solemn mystery to time. Very few discover it while they are here. This is the secret: to know that you are now in eternity and that time is your friend.

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