Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “time travel”

Empathy Is a Clock That Ticks in the Consciousness of Another: The Science of How Our Social Interactions Shape Our Experience of Time

“We may be born alone, but childhood ends with a synchrony of clocks, as we lend ourselves fully to the contagion of time.”

Empathy Is a Clock That Ticks in the Consciousness of Another: The Science of How Our Social Interactions Shape Our Experience of Time

When I was growing up, my father — a kind man of quick intellect and encyclopedic knowledge about esoteric subjects — had, and still has, one habit that never failed to make other people uneasy and to infuriate my mother: In conversation, the interval of time that elapses between the other person’s sentiment or question and my father’s response greatly exceeds the average, a lapse swelling with Kierkegaard’s assertion that “the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity.”

At first, one might suspect that my father is taking an incubatory pause to produce a considered response. But, soon, it becomes apparent that these disorienting durations have no correlation with the complexity of the question — even when asked something as simple as the time of day, he would often let miniature eternities pass and lasso the other person in anxiety as the contrast between the natural response time and my father’s gapes its discomfiting abyss of ambiguity.

It turns out that my father’s liberal pauses are so discomposing because our experience of time has a central social component — an internal clock inheres in our capacity for intersubjectivity, intuitively governing our social interactions and the interpersonal mirroring that undergirds the human capacity for empathy.

This social-synchronistic function of time is what New Yorker staff writer Alan Burdick examines in Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation (public library) — a layered, rigorously researched, lyrically narrated inquiry into the most befuddling dimension of existence.

Discus chronologicus, a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, from Cartographies of Time

Burdick begins at the beginning — the ur-question of how the universe originated from nothing and what this means for time, a question at the heart of the landmark 1922 debate between Einstein and Bergson that shaped our modern understanding of time. Burdick asks:

For argument’s sake, I’ll accept that perhaps the universe did not exist before the Big Bang — but it exploded in something, right? What was that? What was there before the beginning? Proposing such questions, the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has said, is like standing at the South Pole and asking which way is south: “Earlier times simply would not be defined.”

Nearly a century after Borges’s exquisite refutation of time in language“Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.” — Burdick adds with an eye to the inherent limitations of our metaphors:

Perhaps Hawking is trying to be reassuring. What he seems to mean is that human language has a limit. We (or at least the rest of us) reach this boundary whenever we ponder the cosmic. We imagine by analogy and metaphor: that strange and vast thing is like this smaller, more familiar thing. The universe is a cathedral, a clockworks, an egg. But the parallels ultimately diverge; only an egg is an egg. Such analogies appeal precisely because they are tangible elements of the universe. As terms, they are self-contained — but they cannot contain the container that holds them. So it is with time. Whenever we talk about it, we do so in terms of something lesser. We find or lose time, like a set of keys; we save and spend it, like money. Time creeps, crawls, flies, flees, flows, and stands still; it is abundant or scarce; it weighs on us with palpable heft.

[…]

Yet whatever one calls it, we share a rough idea of what’s meant: a lasting sense of one’s self moving in a sea of selves, dependent yet alone; a sense, or perhaps a deep and common wish, that I somehow belongs to we, and that this we belongs to something even larger and less comprehensible; and the recurring thought, so easy to brush aside in the daily effort to cross the street safely and get through one’s to-do list, much less to confront the world’s true crises, that my time, our time, matters precisely because it ends.

Illustration by Harvey Weiss from Time Is When by Beth Youman Gleick, 1960

From the temporal meditations of the ancient philosophers to the last hundred years of ingenious psychological experiments, Burdick goes on to explore such aspects of his subject — a nearly infinite subject, to be sure, which makes his endeavor all the more impressive — as why time dilates and contracts depending on whether we are having fun or facing danger, how fetuses are able to coordinate their circadian activity, and what we are actually measuring when we speak of keeping time. In a fascinating chapter detailing the complex ecosystem of time-making — the inventions, standardizations, and global teams of scientists responsible for measuring and synchronizing earthly time — Burdick reflects on the tremendous coordination of human efforts keeping the world’s clocks ticking:

Time is a social phenomenon. This property is not incidental to time; it is its essence. Time, equally in single cells as in their human conglomerates, is the engine of interaction. A single clock works only as long as it refers, sooner or later, obviously or not, to the other clocks around it. One can rage about it, and we do. But without a clock and the dais of time, we each rage in silence, alone.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

But our technologies are always prosthetic extensions of our consciousness — time, it turns out, is an innately social phenomenon not only in how it is measured, but in how it is experienced. Burdick cites the research of French neuropsychologist Sylvie Droit-Volet, who studies the warping of our temporal perception. In one experiment, she presented people with images of human faces — some neutral, some happy, some angry, some frightened — each displayed on the screen for anywhere between half a second to a second and a half. The research subjects were then asked to evaluate how long the faces appeared for.

She found that across images displayed for the same duration, happy faces were perceived to last longer than neutral ones and shorter than angry or fearful ones. Burdick explains:

The key ingredient seems to be a physiological response called arousal, which isn’t what you might think. In experimental psychology, “arousal” refers to the degree to which the body is preparing itself to act in some manner. It’s measured through heart rate and the skin’s electrical conductivity; sometimes subjects are asked to rate their own arousal in comparison to images of faces or puppet figures. Arousal can be thought of as the physiological expression of one’s emotions or, perhaps, as a precursor of physical action; in practice there may be little difference. By standard measures, anger is the most arousing emotion, for viewer and angry person alike, followed by fear, then happiness, then sadness. Arousal is thought to accelerate the pacemaker, causing more ticks than usual to accumulate in a given interval, thereby making emotionally laden images seem to last longer than others of equal duration… Physiologists and psychologists think of arousal as a primed physical state — not moving but poised to move. When we see movement, even implied movement in a static image, the thinking goes, we enact that movement internally. In a sense, arousal is a measure of your ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón

We perform this kind of emotional mimicry intuitively and incessantly over the course of our daily social interactions, in some degree donning the emotional and mental outfit of each person with whom we come into close contact. But we are also, apparently, absorbing each other’s sense of time, which is encoded in our psychoemotional states. In another study, Droit-Volet found that research subjects perceived images of elderly faces to last shorter than they actually did and misjudged the duration of young faces in the opposite direction — viewers were essentially embodying the typically slower movements of the elderly. Burdick explains:

A slower clock ticks less often in a given interval of time; fewer ticks accumulate, so the interval is judged to be briefer than it actually is. Perceiving or remembering an elderly person induces the viewer to reenact, or simulate, their bodily states, namely their slow movement.

A book, Rebecca Solnit memorably wrote, is “a heart that only beats in the chest of another.” In a very real sense, we are each a temporally open book and empathy a clock that only ticks in the consciousness of another. Burdick writes:

Our shared temporal distortions can be thought of as manifestations of empathy; after all, to embody another’s time is to place oneself in his or her skin. We imitate each other’s gestures and emotions — but we’re more likely to do so, studies find, with people with whom we identify or whose company we would like to share.

[…]

Life dictates that we possess some sort of internal mechanism to keep time and monitor brief durations — yet the one we carry around can be thrown off course by the least emotional breeze. What’s the point of owning such a fallible clock? … Maybe there’s another way to think about it, Droit-Volet suggests. It’s not that our clock doesn’t run well; on the contrary, it’s superb at adapting to the ever-changing social and emotional environment that we navigate every day. The time that I perceive in social settings isn’t solely mine, nor is there just one cast to it, which is part of what gives our social interactions their shading. “There is thus no unique, homogeneous time but instead multiple experiences of time,” Droit-Volet writes in one paper. “Our temporal distortions directly reflect the way our brain and body adapt to these multiple times.” She quotes the philosopher Henri Bergson: “On doit mettre de côte le temps unique, seuls comptent les temps multiples, ceux de l’expérience.” We must put aside the idea of a single time, all that counts are the multiple times that make up experience.

Our slightest social exchanges — our glances, our smiles and frowns — gain potency from our ability to synchronize them among ourselves, Droit-Volet notes. We bend time to make time with one another, and the many temporal distortions we experience are indicators of empathy; the better able I am to envisage myself in your body and your state of mind, and you in mine, the better we can each recognize a threat, an ally, a friend, or someone in need. But empathy is a fairly sophisticated trait, a mark of emotional adulthood; it takes learning and time. As children grow and develop empathy, they gain a better sense of how to navigate the social world. Put another way, it may be that a critical aspect of growing up is learning how to bend our time in step with others. We may be born alone, but childhood ends with a synchrony of clocks, as we lend ourselves fully to the contagion of time.

Perhaps Borges was right, after all, that time is the substance we are made of.

Complement the thoroughly fascinating Why Time Flies with James Gleick on how our time-travel fantasies illuminate consciousness, Patti Smith on time and transformation, T.S. Eliot’s timeless ode to time, and Hannah Arendt on time, space, and our thinking ego, then revisit the story of how Rilke and Rodin gave birth to the modern meaning of empathy.

BP

When Things Fall Apart: Tibetan Buddhist Nun and Teacher Pema Chödrön on Transformation Through Difficult Times

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”

When Things Fall Apart: Tibetan Buddhist Nun and Teacher Pema Chödrön on Transformation Through Difficult Times

In every life, there comes a time when we are razed to the bone of our resilience by losses beyond our control — lacerations of the heart that feel barely bearable, that leave us bereft of solid ground. What then?

“In art,” Kafka assured his teenage walking companion, “one must throw one’s life away in order to gain it.” As in art, so in life — so suggests the American Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön. In When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (public library), she draws on her own confrontation with personal crisis and on the ancient teachings of Tibetan Buddhism to offer gentle and incisive guidance to the enormity we stand to gain during those times when all seems to be lost. Half a century after Albert Camus asserted that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” Chödrön reframes those moments of acute despair as opportunities for befriending life by befriending ourselves in the deepest sense.

“Liminal Worlds” by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

Writing in that Buddhist way of wrapping in simple language the difficult and beautiful truths of existence, Chödrön examines the most elemental human response to the uncharted territory that comes with loss or any other species of unforeseen change:

Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.

If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.

This clarity, Chödrön argues, is a matter of becoming intimate with fear and rather than treating it as a problem to be solved, using it as a tool with which to dismantle all of our familiar structures of being, “a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and thinking.” Noting that bravery is not the absence of fear but the intimacy with fear, she writes:

When we really begin to do this, we’re going to be continually humbled. There’s not going to be much room for the arrogance that holding on to ideals can bring. The arrogance that inevitably does arise is going to be continually shot down by our own courage to step forward a little further. The kinds of discoveries that are made through practice have nothing to do with believing in anything. They have much more to do with having the courage to die, the courage to die continually.

In essence, this is the hard work of befriending ourselves, which is our only mechanism for befriending life in its completeness. Out of that, Chödrön argues, arises our deepest strength:

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.

[…]

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

“Broken/hearted” by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

Decades after Rollo May made his case for the constructiveness of despair, Chödrön considers the fundamental choice we have in facing our unsettlement — whether with aggressive aversion or with generative openness to possibility:

Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.

To stay with that shakiness — to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge — that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic — this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior. We catch ourselves one zillion times as once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, bitterness, righteous indignation — harden in any way, even into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration.

Half a century after Alan Watts began introducing Eastern teachings into the West with his clarion call for presence as the antidote to anxiety, Chödrön points to the present moment — however uncertain, however difficult — as the sole seedbed of wakefulness to all of life:

This very moment is the perfect teacher, and it’s always with us.

[…]

We can be with what’s happening and not dissociate. Awakeness is found in our pleasure and our pain, our confusion and our wisdom, available in each moment of our weird, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Remaining present and intimate with the moment, she argues, requires mastering maitri — the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness toward oneself, that most difficult art of self-compassion. She contrasts maitri with the typical Western therapy and self-help method of handling crises:

What makes maitri such a different approach is that we are not trying to solve a problem. We are not striving to make pain go away or to become a better person. In fact, we are giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart. This starts with realizing that whatever occurs is neither the beginning nor the end. It is just the same kind of normal human experience that’s been happening to everyday people from the beginning of time. Thoughts, emotions, moods, and memories come and they go, and basic nowness is always here.

[…]

In the midst of all the heavy dialogue with ourselves, open space is always there.

Another Buddhist concept at odds with our Western coping mechanisms is the Tibetan expression ye tang che. Chödrön explains its connotations, evocative of Camus’s insistence on the vitalizing power of despair:

The ye part means “totally, completely,” and the rest of it means “exhausted.” Altogether, ye tang che means totally tired out. We might say “totally fed up.” It describes an experience of complete hopelessness, of completely giving up hope. This is an important point. This is the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope — that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be — we will never relax with where we are or who we are.

[…]

Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.

Decades after Simone de Beauvoir’s proclamation about atheism and the ultimate frontier of hope, Chödrön points out that at the heart of Buddhism’s approach is not the escapism of religion but the realism of secular philosophy. And yet these crude demarcations fail to capture the subtlety of these teachings. She clarifies:

The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God… Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. It means thinking there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one. We all are inclined to abdicate our responsibilities and delegate our authority to something outside ourselves. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.

[…]

Hopelessness is the basic ground. Otherwise, we’re going to make the journey with the hope of getting security… Begin the journey without hope of getting ground under your feet. Begin with hopelessness.

[…]

When inspiration has become hidden, when we feel ready to give up, this is the time when healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself… In the midst of loneliness, in the midst of fear, in the middle of feeling misunderstood and rejected is the heartbeat of all things.

Art from The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc

Only through such active self-compassion to our own darkness, Chödrön suggests, can we begin to offer authentic light to anybody else, to become a force of radiance in the world. She writes:

We don’t set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts.

Complement the immensely grounding and elevating When Things Fall Apart with Camus on strength of character in times of trouble, Erich Fromm on what self-love really means, and Nietzsche on why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, then revisit Chödrön on the art of letting go.

BP

Kierkegaard on Time, the Fullness of the Moment, and How to Bridge the Ephemeral with the Eternal

“The moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time.”

Kierkegaard on Time, the Fullness of the Moment, and How to Bridge the Ephemeral with the Eternal

“All eternity is in the moment,” Mary Oliver wrote with an indebted eye to Blake and Whitman. “[Is] only the present comprehended?” Patti Smith asked two decades later in her magnificent meditation on time and transformation.

This temporal tension between the immediate and the eternal is one of the core characteristics and defining frustrations of the human experience — over and over, we strain to locate ourselves within time, against time, grasping for solid ground while aswirl in its unstoppable flow. We struggle to hold it all with what Bertrand Russell called “a largeness of contemplation,” but we continually suffer at the smallness of our temporal existence — suffering reflected in our cultural fascination with time travel, which illuminates the central mystery of human consciousness.

How to inhabit the time-scale of our existence without suffering and fill the moment with eternity is what the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) explores in a portion of his 1844 classic The Concept of Anxiety, later included in the indispensable volume The Essential Kierkegaard (public library).

Søren Kierkegaard

A century before Borges’s famous proclamation — “time is the substance I am made of” — and more than a century and a half before Einstein revolutionized human thought by annealing our two primary modes of existence to one another in the single entity of spacetime, Kierkegaard writes:

Man … is a synthesis of psyche and body, but he is also a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal.

Centuries before physicists came to explore the science of why we can’t remember the future, Kierkegaard probes our familiar temporal ordering of events and experiences:

If time is correctly defined as an infinite succession, it most likely is also defined as the present, the past, and the future. This distinction, however, is incorrect if it is considered to be implicit in time itself, because the distinction appears only through the relation of time to eternity and through the reflection of eternity in time. If in the infinite succession of time a foothold could be found, i.e., a present, which was the dividing point, the division would be quite correct. However, precisely because every moment, as well as the sum of the moments, is a process (a passing by), no moment is a present, and accordingly there is in time neither present, nor past, nor future. If it is claimed that this division can be maintained, it is because the moment is spatialized, but thereby the infinite succession comes to a halt, it is because representation is introduced that allows time to be represented instead of being thought. Even so, this is not correct procedure, for even as representation, the infinite succession of time is an infinitely contentless present (this is the parody of the eternal).

[…]

The present, however, is not a concept of time, except precisely as something infinitely contentless, which again is the infinite vanishing. If this is not kept in mind, no matter how quickly it may disappear, the present is posited, and being posited it again appears in the categories: the past and the future.

The eternal, on the contrary, is the present. For thought, the eternal is the present in terms of an annulled succession (time is the succession that passes by). For representation, it is a going forth that nevertheless does not get off the spot, because the eternal is for representation the infinitely contentful present. So also in the eternal there is no division into the past and the future, because the present is posited as the annulled succession.

Time is, then, infinite succession; the life that is in time and is only of time has no present. In order to define the sensuous life, it is usually said that it is in the moment and only in the moment. By the moment, then, is understood that abstraction from the eternal that, if it is to be the present, is a parody of it. The present is the eternal, or rather, the eternal is the present, and the present is full.

Illustration by Harvey Weiss from Time Is When by Beth Youman Gleick, 1960

Nearly two centuries before the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard so poetically observed that “if our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” Kierkegaard arrives at the problem of definition and the paradox of defining time-as-succession via the instant:

If at this point one wants to use the moment to define time and let the moment signify the purely abstract exclusion of the past and the future and as such the present, then the moment is precisely not the present, because the intermediary between the past and the future, purely abstractly conceived, is not at all. Thus it is seen that the moment is not a determination of time, because the determination of time is that it “passes by.” For this reason time, if it is to be defined by any of the determinations revealed in time itself, is time past. If, on the contrary, time and eternity touch each other, then it must be in time, and now we have come to the moment.

With an eye to the ancient Greeks, Kierkegaard considers the not uncomplicated loveliness emanating from what Plato called “the sudden”:

“The moment” is a figurative expression, and therefore it is not easy to deal with. However, it is a beautiful word to consider. Nothing is as swift as a blink of the eye, and yet it is commensurable with the content of the eternal… Whatever its etymological explanation, [“the sudden”] is related to the category of the invisible, because time and eternity were conceived equally abstractly, because the concept of temporality was lacking, and this again was due to the lack of the concept of spirit. The Latin term is momentum (from movere [to move]), which by derivation expresses the merely vanishing.

Thus understood, the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

At this meeting point of the ephemeral and the eternal, Kierkegaard argues, our entire experience of time plays out:

The moment is that ambiguity in which time and eternity touch each other, and with this the concept of temporality is posited, whereby time constantly intersects eternity and eternity constantly pervades time. As a result, the above-mentioned division acquires its significance: the present time, the past time, the future time.

And yet this temporal taxonomy suggests that past, present, and future don’t exist on equal terms:

The future in a certain sense signifies more than the present and the past, because in a certain sense the future is the whole of which the past is a part, and the future can in a certain sense signify the whole. This is because the eternal first signifies the future or because the future is the incognito in which the eternal, even though it is incommensurable with time, nevertheless preserves its association with time… The moment and the future in turn posit the past.

[…]

The fullness of time is the moment as the eternal, and yet this eternal is also the future and the past. If attention is not paid to this, not a single concept can be saved from a heretical and treasonable admixture that annihilates the concept.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly revelatory The Essential Kierkegaard with T.S. Eliot’s timeless ode to time, the story of how Einstein and Gödel redefined our understanding of it, Virginia Woolf on the past and how to live more fully in the present, and Hannah Arendt on time, space, and our thinking ego, then revisit Kierkegaard on boredom, the trap of busyness, the power of the minority, and why haters hate.

BP

Hourglass: Dani Shapiro on Time, Memory, Marriage, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“Change even one moment, the whole thing unravels… There is no other life than this. You would not have stumbled into the vastly imperfect, beautiful, impossible present.”

Hourglass: Dani Shapiro on Time, Memory, Marriage, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“It is the intentions, the capacities for choice rather than the total configuration of traits which defines the person,” philosopher Amelie Rorty concluded in her taxonomy of the seven layers of identity in literature and life. “Time is the substance I am made of,” wrote Borges decades earlier in refuting the most perplexing dimension of existence. “Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

How is it, then, that we live both in time and outside of time, with it and against it, constantly balancing between resistance and surrender as we sculpt ourselves through our choices across life? “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” wrote the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in contemplating our paradoxical experience of time.

That delicate, ferocious act of unsweeping ourselves from the river of time and unplundering its instants is what Dani Shapiro explores with uncommon elegance in Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage (public library) — at once a memoir and a quiet manifesto for how, despite the cavalcade of losses and the exponential narrowing of possibility marking the passage of the years, it remains possible to have an expansive and creatively invigorating existence. In Shapiro’s virtuosic hands, time compresses and expands — an accordion playing the sorrowful yet redemptive melody that is life.

Dani Shapiro by Kate Uhry
Dani Shapiro by Kate Uhry

Radiating from Shapiro’s particular life-story is a larger inquiry into the universal puzzlement of “the selves we shed and shed — only to have them rise within us once more.” As she leafs through her old journals — her way of ordering the chaos of life, “an attempt to separate the interior from the exterior,” replete with long-ago lists of fossilized intentions — she marvels:

How do you suppose time works? A slippery succession of long hours adding up to ever-shorter days and years that disappear like falling dominoes? Near the end of her life, Grace Paley once remarked that the decades between fifty and eighty feel not like minutes, but seconds. I don’t know yet if this is the case, but I do know this: the decades that separate that young mother making her lists from the middle-aged woman discovering them feel like the membrane of a giant floating bubble. A pinprick and I’m back there. But is she here? How can I tell her that her lists will not protect her?

Shapiro, both a novelist and a masterly memoirist, considers the building blocks of selfhood in literature and life:

In crafting a work of fiction, at least in first draft, a writer’s got to have a kind of willful blindness to her own motivations. Why the knock at the door, the chance meeting, the near miss? The writer may not know, even as she proceeds. But when the self — not a fictional character — is the landscape of the story, we can’t afford to be blind to our own themes and the strands weaving through them. And so we must make a map, even as the ground shifts beneath us.

This is, of course, not only a literary problem.

New York City is particularly fertile territory for the continual mapping and remapping of the self, with its peculiar way of populating the present with every past version of oneself. With wistful wonderment, Shapiro addresses her 22-year-old self vanishing behind a New York street corner, addresses the universal inner child in each of us, in everyone who has ever grown up:

Oh, child! Somewhere inside you, your future has already unfurled like one of those coiled-up party streamers, once shiny, shaken loose, floating gracefully for a brief moment, now trampled underfoot after the party is over. The future you’re capable of imagining is already a thing of the past. Who did you think you would grow up to become? You could never have dreamt yourself up. Sit down. Let me tell you everything that’s happened. You can stop running now. You are alive in the woman who watches you as you vanish.

Illustration by Isol from Daytime Visions

Echoing Simone de Beauvoir’s reflections on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, Shapiro writes:

Each fork in the road: the choice to stay home, to go out, to catch the flight, or cancel it, to take the 1 train, to stop at the bar on the corner. The chance encounters, split-second decisions that make the design — that are the design.

[…]

Change even one moment, the whole thing unravels. The narrative thread doesn’t stretch in a line from end to end, but rather, spools and unspools, loops around and returns again and again to the same spot.

In a sentiment that calls to mind astrophysicist Janna Levin’s magnificent Moth story about the Möbius life-paths that lead us back to ourselves, Shapiro adds:

There is no other life than this. You would not have stumbled into the vastly imperfect, beautiful, impossible present.

There is, of course, a powerful meta-truth to such a recognition within a memoir — an almost countercultural willingness to consider the past, that raw material of memoir, not as a predecessor of the present but as its twin of permanent residence. We don’t so much emigrate from the past to the present, Shapiro suggests, as we hold a lifelong dual citizenship that confers upon us as many rights as it does responsibilities, particularly when it comes to the stories we tell about our own lives. With an eye to this meta-dimension of her craft, Shapiro — who has observed that writing memoir “embeds your story deep inside you” — offers:

I used to tell my students that in order to write memoir — or at least good memoir, the kind that will be of value to the disinterested reader — the writer has to have some distance from the material. I was quite certain that we could not write directly from our feelings, but only the memory of our feelings. How else to find the necessary ironic distance, the cool remove? How else to shape a narrative but from the insight and wisdom of retrospect?

But like every fixed idea, this one has lost its hold on me as years have passed and the onrushing present — the only place from which the writer can tell the story — continues to shift along with the sands of time. Our recollections alter as we attempt to gather them. Even retrospect is mutable. Perspective, a momentary figment of consciousness. Memoir freezes a moment like an insect trapped in amber. Me now, me then. This woman, that girl. It all keeps changing. And so: If retrospect is an illusion, then why not attempt to tell the story as I’m inside of it? Which is to say: before the story has become a story?

Then there are the moments of the story, of a life, that stand as what T.S. Eliot so memorably called “the still point of the turning world.” Shapiro relays one particularly poignant touchpoint of past and present — the kind in which the arrow of time pierces the heart of the human experience:

At the end of the first evening at a large retreat, an old man approaches as I’m packing up my books and papers for the night. He looks at me with such warmth and love. Do I know you? Startled, I glance down at his name tag. I raise a hand to my mouth, then stand and hug him hard, wordlessly. He had been my first piano teacher.

“I read a book review of yours in the Times,” he tells me. “Which led me to read all of your work. I had to come see you”

[…]

He has traveled hundreds of miles to see me. He tells me of the loss of one of his adult children, tears standing still in his eyes. What’s left? he wonders aloud. What’s left? He asks the question as if he believes I may know the answer. At first, I feel a wave of fear. What do I know? What can I possibly offer this man who saved me every Wednesday afternoon of my childhood? … I fight back my own tears as the first measures of Mozart’s Sonata no. 11 in A Major begin to play in my head. Be who you needed when you were younger. He reaches out a trembling hand and I take it.

Looking back on the wild mosaic of her life — two catastrophic youthful marriages and one, to the love of her life, that has grown for eighteen years; a life devoted entirely to art and thus bedeviled by the artist’s ongoing struggle for survival; the near-loss of her infant son Jacob, now a handsome teenager, to a rare seizure disorder; 9/11; her father’s death in a car crash; the myriad unpredictable turns in the road that make a person precisely the person they are — Shapiro writes:

Dig deep enough and everything that has ever happened is alive and whole, a world unto itself — scenes, words, images — unspooling in some other dimension. I am not referring to memory, but rather, to a galaxy that exists outside the limited reach of memory. It can be understood, perhaps, as the place where neurobiology ends and physics begins. The law of conservation of energy states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant — it is said to be conserved over time.

All those selves — that inner crowd — clamor inside me. The girl who believed men would save her. The young woman who made harsh and quick work of herself — savage obstinacy — and nearly succeeded in her blind, flailing quest for self-ruin. The one who said I do, and then didn’t. The one who kept journals despite it all. The one who turned over the shovelful of earth and heard it hit the plain pine box six feet below — once, twice. The one who said I do, then did. The one who wrote books as if her life depended on it. The one who held her baby to her breast and sang Hush little baby don’t you cry. The one who was going to save him or die trying. The one who fled the city after the towers fell. The one who grew up. The one — now — with her boy on the verge of manhood, her man struggling with his own wounded spirit, who is consumed with a sense of urgency. From fifty to eighty.

Somewhere, a clock ticks. Sand pours through the hourglass. I am no longer interested in the stories but rather, what is underneath the stories: the soft, pulsating thing that is true.

Illustration by Harvey Weiss from Time Is When by Beth Youman Gleick, 1960

Shapiro’s 91-year-old aunt pulls into sharp relief the urgency of inhabiting those deeper stories and the timescales on which they unfold:

“You know,” my aunt says, “I once had a terribly difficult period that lasted twenty-four years.” Wait. Twenty-four years? “And it was so important to realize that I didn’t know what was on the other side of the darkness. Every so often there was a sliver of light that shot the whole world through with mystery and wonder, and reminded me: I didn’t have all the information.”

Reflecting on her own glimmers of darkness-dispelling illumination, Shapiro writes:

Sometimes I think I have organized the inner crowd. For a brief, breathtaking moment, I feel completely whole. I understand that I am comprised of many selves that make up a single chorus. To listen to the music this chorus makes, to recognize it as music, as something noble, varied, patterned, beautiful — that is the work of a lifetime.

What makes the book especially powerful is the intrepid rawness with which Shapiro examines the essential counterpart to that inner crowd — her marriage to M., in which their two selves are reoriented and recalibrated so that “suffering and happiness are no longer individual matters.” The treachery of time then becomes double treason, but there is also something deeply redemptive in the presence of the two banks facing each other along the river of time, on which to shore up against the merciless flow.

Pulling out her wedding vows from a yellowed old envelope, Shapiro writes:

I can no longer say to M. that we’re just beginning… That solid yet light thing — our journey — is no longer new. He identified my mother’s body. We took turns holding our seizing child. We have watched his mother disappear in plain sight. We have raised Jacob together. We know each other in a way that young couple couldn’t have fathomed. Our shared vocabulary — our language — will die with us. We are the treasure itself: fathoms deep, in the world we have made and made again.

With an eye to the ongoingness of that making against time’s destruction, which is the ultimate material of life, Shapiro writes:

Years vanish. Months collapse. Time is like a tall building made of playing cards. It seems orderly until a strong gust of wind comes along and blows the whole thing skyward. Imagine it: an entire deck of cards soaring like a flock of birds.

Complement the thoroughly transcendent Hourglass with Bertrand Russell on the nature of time, Virginia Woolf on its elasticity, and Marc Wittmann on the psychology of how we experience it, then revisit Shapiro on writing and vulnerability and why creative work requires leaping into the unknown.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.