A meditation on the one dimension of human existence that “goes past all racial conflict and all kinds of conflicts.”
By Maria Popova
“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 as he contemplated our paradoxical experience of time in the early 1930s just as Einstein, Gödel, and the rise of relativity had begun revolutionizing our understanding of time. “Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges proclaimed a generation later in his exquisite 1944 refutation of time. “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.”
If Borges’s words sound like a song lyric, it is because there is something singularly musical about our perception of time — we speak of our daily rhythms, abide by the metronomic ticking of the clock, and feel the flow of time like one feels the flow of a melody. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the elusive and indomitable nature of time preoccupied not only the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, scientists, and writers, but also one of its greatest musicians: Eunice Kathleen Waymon, better known as Nina Simone (February 21, 1933–April 21, 2003).
On October 26, 1969, at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City, Simone performed a version of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” written by the English folk-rock singer-songwriter Sandy Denny and popularized by Judy Collins. The version was released a year later on her live album Black Gold and was later included in The Essential Nina Simone.
Simone, who was at least as devoted to civil rights as she was to music, considered this “a reflective tune” that “goes past all racial conflict and all kinds of conflicts,” for it deals with the supreme unifying force of all human existence: the shared experience of time’s inescapable flow. She introduced her cover with a beautiful, simple, profound prefatory meditation on time — please enjoy:
Sometime in your life, you will have occasion to say, “What is this thing called time?” What is that, the clock? You go to work by the clock, you get your martini in the afternoon by the clock and your coffee by the clock, and you have to get on the plane at a certain time, and arrive at a certain time. It goes on and on and on and on.
And time is a dictator, as we know it. Where does it go? What does it do? Most of all, is it alive? Is it a thing that we cannot touch and is it alive? And then, one day, you look in the mirror — you’re old — and you say, “Where does the time go?”
WHO KNOWS WHERE THE TIME GOES
Across the morning sky, all the birds are leaving
How can they know that it’s time to go?
Before the winter fire, I’ll still be dreaming
I do not count the time
Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?
Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know that it’s time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
For I do not count the time
Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?
But I am not alone as long as my love is near me
And I know it will be so till it’s time to go
All through the winter, until the birds return in spring again
I do not fear the time
Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?
“Time is from before to now; from now to later. Time is when.”
By Maria Popova
“What is time? Things change, and time is how we keep track,” science writer James Gleick wrote in the final pages of his invigorating tour of our temporal imagination. Central to Gleick’s inquiry into our relationship with time is the observation that even humanity’s greatest thinkers, be the scientists or philosophers or poets, have failed to offer an adequate definition of what time actually is, producing instead a variety of aphorisms, wisecracks, and other clever evasions. (Susan Sontag, riffing on John Archibald Wheeler: “Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once.” Richard Feynman: “Time is what happens when nothing else happens.” Augustine: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one that asks, I know not.”)
When Gleick was a boy of six, his mother, Beth Youman Gleick, gave her own answer to this perennially slippery question in Time Is When — a charming children’s book exploring one of the first external experiences of which we are aware: the substance and passage of time.
The original 1960 edition, now nearly impossible to find, features marvelous vintage artwork by sculptor and illustrator Harvey Weiss, who belonged to the same circle of Connecticut author and artist friends as Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak. In 2008, the book was reprinted in a new edition with different illustrations, but the original — of which I was fortunate enough to track down a surviving copy — remains singularly scrumptious. Weiss’s drawings offer the perfect visual counterpart to the limber curiosity and elegant simplicity with which Gleick tackles one of the greatest complexities of existence by illustrating how the fragments in which we experience time — parts of the moment, parts of the day, parts of the year, parts of a lifetime — shape the nature and texture of our experience.
“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
By Maria Popova
“In the wholeheartedness of concentration,” the poet Jane Hirshfield wrote in her beautiful inquiry into the effortless effort of creativity, “world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.” But concentration is indeed a difficult art, art’s art, and its difficulty lies in the constant conciliation of the dissonance between self and world — a difficulty hardly singular to the particular conditions of our time. Two hundred years before social media, the great French artist Eugène Delacroix lamented the necessary torment of avoiding social distractions in creative work; a century and a half later, Agnes Martin admonished aspiring artists to exercise discernment in the interruptions they allow, or else corrupt the mental, emotional, and spiritual privacy where inspiration arises.
How to hedge against that hazard is what beloved poet Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) explores in a wonderful piece titled “Of Power and Time,” found in the altogether enchanting Upstream: Selected Essays (public library).
It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.
But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.
Oliver terms this the “intimate interrupter” and cautions that it is far more perilous to creative work than any external distraction, adding:
The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self — and does — is a darker and more curious matter.
Echoing Borges’s puzzlement over our divided personhood, Oliver sets out to excavate the building blocks of the self in order to understand its parallel capacities for focused creative flow and merciless interruption. She identifies three primary selves that she inhabits, and that inhabit her, as they do all of us: the childhood self, which we spend our lives trying to weave into the continuity of our personal identity (“The child I was,” she writes, “is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.”); the social self, “fettered to a thousand notions of obligation”; and a third self, a sort of otherworldly awareness.
The first two selves, she argues, inhabit the ordinary world and are present in all people; the third is of a different order and comes most easily alive in artists — it is where the wellspring of creative energy resides. She writes:
Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.
Oliver contrasts the existential purpose of the two ordinary selves with that of the creative self:
Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask of the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?
Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do — fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go round.
In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.
Part of this something-elseness, Oliver argues, is the uncommon integration of the creative self — the artist’s work cannot be separated from the artist’s whole life, nor can its wholeness be broken down into the mechanical bits-and-pieces of specific actions and habits. (Elsewhere, Oliver has written beautifully about how habit gives shape to but must not control our inner lives).
Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.
No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.
Above all, Oliver observes from the “fortunate platform” of a long, purposeful, and creatively fertile life, the artist’s task is one of steadfast commitment to the art:
Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.
She returns to the problem of concentration, which for the artist is a form, perhaps the ultimate form, of consecration:
The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work… Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.
It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.
“We have reached the epoch of the nanosecond… That is our condition, a culmination of millennia of evolution in human societies, technologies, and habits of mind.”
By Maria Popova
“Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present,” Alan Watts observed of the difficult pleasures of presence in the middle of the twentieth century, as the mechanized acceleration of modern life was beginning to take our already aggravated relationship with time to new frontiers of frustration. I thought of him one November morning shortly after I moved to New York when, already overwhelmed by the city’s pace, I swiped my brand new subway card at the turnstile and confidently marched through, only to jam my hips into the immobile metal rod. Puzzled, I looked over to the tiny primitive screen above the turnstile, which chided me coldly in cyan electronic letters: “SWIPE FASTER.” Just these two words, stern and commanding — no “PLEASE,” not even “TRY TO.” In the world’s fastest-paced city, even the mindless machines are temporally judgmental and make sure you remain on par.
Science was already hijacking time from the domain of metaphysics and fomenting the popular imagination with its rush of discoveries, so when Einstein and Bergson sat down for their famous debate in 1922, the moment was ripe to forever change our experience of time. (It may be a coincidence, but it is nonetheless an emblematic one, that 1955 was both the year Einstein died and the year scientists concretized the second itself by ceasing to tinker with its length, until then defined as 1/86,400 of the mutable duration of a real day.)
The impact of these and related developments on society and the human psyche are what the inimitable James Gleick explores in Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (public library) — a book written nearly two decades ago that has not only stood the test of time but has grown all the more perceptive and prescient in the years since.
We are in a rush. We are making haste. A compression of time characterizes the life of the century.
We have a word for free time: leisure. Leisure is time off the books, off the job, off the clock. If we save time, we commonly believe we are saving it for our leisure. We know that leisure is really a state of mind, but no dictionary can define it without reference to passing time. It is unrestricted time, unemployed time, unoccupied time. Or is it? Unoccupied time is vanishing. The leisure industries (an oxymoron maybe, but no contradiction) fill time, as groundwater fills a sinkhole. The very variety of experience attacks our leisure as it attempts to satiate us. We work for our amusement.
Sociologists in several countries have found that increasing wealth and increasing education bring a sense of tension about time. We believe that we possess too little of it: that is a myth we now live by.
To fully appreciate Gleick’s insightful prescience, it behooves us to remember that he is writing long before the social web as we know it, before the conspicuous consumption of “content” became the currency of the BuzzMalnourishment industrial complex, before the timelines of Twitter and Facebook came to dominate our record and experience of time. (Prescience, of course, is a form of time travel — perhaps our only nonfictional way to voyage into the future.) Gleick writes:
We live in the buzz. We wish to live intensely, and we wonder about the consequences — whether, perhaps, we face the biological dilemma of the waterflea, whose heart beats faster as the temperature rises. This creature lives almost four months at 46 degrees Fahrenheit but less than one month at 82 degrees.
Yet we have made our choices and are still making them. We humans have chosen speed and we thrive on it — more than we generally admit. Our ability to work fast and play fast gives us power. It thrills us… No wonder we call sudden exhilaration a rush.
Gleick considers what our units of time reveal about our units of thought:
We have reached the epoch of the nanosecond. This is the heyday of speed. “Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man,” laments the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, suggesting by ecstasy a state of simultaneous freedom and imprisonment… That is our condition, a culmination of millennia of evolution in human societies, technologies, and habits of mind.
Particle physicists may freeze a second, open it up, and explore its dappled contents like surgeons pawing through an abdomen, but in real life, when events occur within thousandths of a second, our minds cannot distinguish past from future. What can we grasp in a nanosecond — a billionth of a second? … Within the millisecond, the bat presses against the ball; a bullet finds time to enter a skull and exit again; a rock plunges into a still pond, where the unexpected geometry of the splash pattern pops into existence. During a nanosecond, balls, bullets, and droplets are motionless.
If the nanosecond seems too negligible to matter, it is only because we are fundamentally blinded by the biological limits of our perception. (We are, for instance, only just beginning to understand the monumental importance of the microbiome, imperceptible to the naked eye yet crucial to nearly every aspect of our bodily existence.) In 1849, when trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell became the first woman hired by the U.S. federal government for a non-domestic specialized skill, she labored as a “computer of Venus” — a sort of one-woman GPS, performing mathematically rigorous celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe. The nanosecond was still decades away from being measured and named, so her calculations, however adroit, were crude by modern standards. Today, as Gleick points out, an error of one nanosecond translates into a misplacement by one foot in modern GPS systems. This means that just a dozen nanoseconds can steer you the wrong way altogether.
But perhaps the most striking illustration of just how frantically we’ve fragmented time and how insistently we’ve imbued the fragments with restlessness comes from an unlikely source — a mid-century social science study published in 1959 under the title “Association of Specific Overt Behavior Pattern with Blood and Cardiovascular Findings,” the validity of which has since failed to hold up against scientific scrutiny but the linguistic legacy of which has only grown in the half-century since: In addition to originating the notion of “hurry sickness,” this study also coined the term “Type A,” which has since planted itself firmly and anxiously in our collective conscience.
This magnificently bland coinage, put forward by a pair of California cardiologists in 1959, struck a collective nerve and entered the language. It is a token of our confusion: are we victims or perpetrators of the crime of haste? Are we living at high speed with athleticism and vigor, or are we stricken by hurry sickness?
The cardiologists, Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, listed a set of personality traits which, they claimed, tend to go hand in hand with one another and also with heart disease. They described these traits rather unappealingly, as characteristics about and around the theme of impatience. Excessive competitiveness. Aggressiveness. “A harrying sense of time urgency.” The Type A idea emerged in technical papers and then formed the basis of a popular book and made its way into dictionaries.
The archetypal Type A was a person the researchers called “Paul,” whom they described unambiguously:
A very disproportionate amount of his emotional energy is consumed in struggling against the normal constraints of time. “How can I move faster, and do more and more things in less and less time?” is the question that never ceases to torment him. Paul hurries his thinking, his speech and his movements. He also strives to hurry the thinking, speech, and movements of those about him; they must communicate rapidly and relevantly if they wish to avoid creating impatience in him. Planes must arrive and depart precisely on time for Paul, cars ahead of him on the highway must maintain a speed he approves of, and there must never be a queue of persons standing between him and a bank clerk, a restaurant table, or the interior of a theater. In fact, he is infuriated whenever people talk slowly or circuitously, when planes are late, cars dawdle on the highway, and queues form.
The study ultimately didn’t live up to its hypothesis that a Type A personality predisposes to heart disease — the researchers failed to account for various confounds, including the facts that patients in Group A drank, smoked, and ate more than those in Group B. But what it didn’t prove in science it proved in society — the need for a term that confers validity about an experience so prevalent and so intimately familiar to so many. (In her beautiful essay on language and creativity, the poet Jane Hirshfield has written about how, through the language of poetic image, “something previously unformulated (in the most literal sense) comes into the realm of the expressed” until we begin to feel that without its existence “the world’s store of truth would be diminished.”) Gleick writes:
If the Type A phenomenon made for poor medical research, it stands nonetheless as a triumph of social criticism. Some of us yield more willingly to impatience than others, but on the whole Type A is who we are—not just the coronary-prone among us, but all of us, as a society and as an age. No wonder the concept has proven too rich a cultural totem to be dismissed. We understand it. We know it when we see it. Type A people walk fast and eat fast. They finish your sentences for you. They feel guilty about relaxing. They try to do two or more things at once…
Among the many aggravators of Type A-ness in modern life, elevators stand out. By its very nature, elevatoring — short-range vertical transportation, as the industry calls it — is a pressure-driven business. Although there are still places on earth where people live full lives without ever seeing an elevator, the Otis Elevator Company estimates that its cars raise and lower the equivalent of the planet’s whole population every nine days. This is a clientele that dislikes waiting.
Gleick cites a curious and revealing passage from a 1979 report by Otis researchers studying elevator behavior:
Waiting, some stand still, others pace, and another may make small gestures of impatience such as foot tapping, jiggling change in a pocket, scanning the walls and ceiling with apparent concentration… At intervals, nearly everyone regards the elevator location display above the doors by tipping their head slightly back and raising their eyes… Men, but hardly ever women, may rock gently back and forth…
The long silences, the almost library hush, that we can observe where people wait for elevators are not only what they seem… The longer the silence the more likely one or more of us will become slightly embarrassed… the more embarrassing and tense are the little interior dramas that we play out each within our own theater of projection…
The actual period of waiting that elapses before a particular group may feel that waiting has become a nearly unendurable torment will probably vary significantly with the composition of the group, the time of day, and the type of building in which they are traveling… The wait is hardly ever long, however much the subjective experience may stretch it out.
What makes the elevator so upsetting to the Type A person is that it forces upon us perpetually moving moderns the anxiety of stillness, a punishing counterpoint to the self-elected exhilaration of speed. An interesting, if discomfiting, thing to consider: At the time of Gleick’s writing, elevator riders tended to fill that anxious space of time with bodily fidgeting, occasional small talk, and no doubt large quantities of quiet inner rage; today, the average elevator is filled with people hunched over their devices, heads bent, looking like a congregation of mourners — an alarmingly apt image, for we are now irreversibly bereaved of that bygone era of innocent fidget-filled idleness, unburdened by the tyrannical impulse for productivity. We no longer allow ourselves boredom, that crucible of creativity, even in the elevator.
Building engineers have long tried to address the collective malady of elevator impatience — a problem only exacerbated as buildings grow taller and taller, requiring a greater number of elevators to prevent infuriating elevator traffic jams. For a while, a fanciful solution gained traction: A pressurized “sky lobby” — a transit point in a skyscraper, wherein an air lock repressurizes elevator passengers before they plunge into a rapid descent. But as abstract and at times illusory as time may seem, it grounds us mercilessly into the creaturely reality of our biology, which put an end to the sky lobby idea. Gleick writes:
One small problem resists solution. Evolution neglected to armor the human eardrum against the sudden change in air pressure that comes with a fall of hundreds of feet at high speed. Natural selection rarely had the opportunity to work with survivors of this experience, to fine-tune their eustachian tubes in preparain for vertical transport. So at mid-century, when Frank Lloyd Wright designed a mile-high tower with 528 stories, helicopter landing pads, and quintuple-deck elevators running on atomic power, airline pilots instantly wrote to alert him to the impracticality. The age of high-altitude passenger aviation was just beginning, and the pilots knew that elevators descending thousands of feet within a minute or two would subject their passengers to severe inner-ear pain. Sure enough, decades later, the Sears Tower in Chicago had to slow its observation-deck elevators because at least one passenger had complained of a broken ear drum — an extreme manifestation of hurry sickness.
What remained was the low-tech solution of manipulating the psychology of human impatience, most palpably triggered by what engineers call “door dwell” — the amount of time it takes the elevator doors to automatically close after making a stop on a given floor, programmed to last anywhere between two and four seconds. There is, of course, a way to override the automatic door dwell and win back, as it were, some of those precious blinks: the “DOOR CLOSE” button — a Type A favorite and typically the most worn out one in elevators, for people press it compulsively and repeatedly despite the negligible time-saving benefits and the knowledge that pushing it three times in antsy succession is no more effective than pushing it once. Gleick considers the curious compulsion of poking this seductive yet temporally impotent button:
Although elevators leave the factory with all their functions ready to work, the manufacturers realize that building managers often choose to disable DOOR CLOSE. Buildings fear trapped limbs and lawsuits. Thus they turn their resident populations into subjects in a Pavlovian experiment in negative feedback. The subjects hunger for something even purer than food: speed.
How many times will you continue to press a button that does nothing? Do you press elevator call buttons that are already lighted — despite your suspicion that, once the button has been pressed, no amount of further attention will hasten the car’s arrival? Your suspicion is accurate. The computers could instruct elevators to give preference to floors with many calls. But elevator engineers know better than to provide any greater incentive than already exists for repeated pressing of the button. They remember Pavlov. They know what happens to those dogs.