Time and Temporality

Lately I have been thinking about the future and the distinction between time and temporality. Our relationship to time can vary depending upon our culture and the era in which we are living. If I imagine living 300 or 400 years ago in what was primarily an agricultural ‘reality’, time was cyclical—we measured it in terms of seasons and lived in the certainty that life didn’t change much from one generation to the next. I can contrast that to today when time is viewed more like a highway moving ‘from’ someplace ‘to’ someplace. The future is an unknown and each generation is pretty much making up their own story and their own rules. These two views are as distinct as a circle and a line.

Temporality, however, is something else. It is a context in which we are able to even conceive of anything other than moment-to-moment experience. It is implicit in our nature and is a consequence of having language. As ‘languaging’ beings, we are always living in an interpretative reality that is either revealing or concealing some aspect of our consciousness. With language come distinctions like past, present and future. Without this capacity to distinguish, we could not have choice—we would be living in some sort of a preprogrammed relationship to life and our circumstances. Without temporality, we would not have the capacity to maintain or ‘hold’ onto whatever we are perceiving—again it would all just be moment-to-moment experience.

I think the biggest (and perhaps the most difficult) thing I learned in my years working with Werner Erhard was the idea that the past does not determine or even influence what we are doing or how we are being in the present. In fact, we can argue that it is the future that is always organizing the way we are in the present, our choices and possibilities, and even our actions. It doesn’t seem this way because in our culture and Cartesian ‘way of being’ we project the past into the future. We behave consistently with the way we observe the world and we are normally observing the world that our past gives us when we think about the future.

This is important when we think about aging because all of us relate to the future in one way or another, and all of us have a lot of future left to relate to—at least another 30 or 40 years, depending on how old you are now. If that future is an extension of your past, then you can see that your choices are limited to whatever was possible in the past. And since the past is in the past and most of us cannot ‘do’ whatever it was we used to do (at least as well as we used to), then it’s obvious that the future looks like a downhill slide from where we stand today.

If, however, we consider that temporality is a permanent aspect of the human condition, then we have a choice in how we conceive of and relate to time. It can be a circle, or a highway, or perhaps it can be conceived of as something we create through our cultural stories. Perhaps time is neither a circle nor a highway, but more of a conversation about what is possible and not possible in the future.

I am reminded of Richard Bach’s first book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, in which his analogy of time as a river gives rise to a parable of freedom and transformation. He speaks of going with the current to transcend the limits of time and experience the reality of space.

If our friendship depends on things like space and time, then when we finally overcome space and time, we’ve destroyed our own brotherhood! But overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now. And in the middle of Here and Now, don’t you think that we might see each other once or twice?
—Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970)

Our concerns that there is ‘not enough’ time have us try to control outcomes, hold onto successful recipes or past experiences, or follow conventional wisdom: this fear of running out of time keeps us trapped in a conversation which has the past use us.

Perhaps, if we conceive of temporality as ‘the possibility of time’, then time is also a possibility—the possibility of love, health, happiness and self-expression in whatever measure we wish to have them. The only ‘time constraint’ is our capacity to imagine, invent, create and commit to a future worth having, one that is not a projection of the past, one that is not predicted or predictable but is always occurring as an opening for relationship and playing the games we want to play.

We always have time. What is missing sometimes is the passion to live the life we are committed to living and the trust to allow the future and our vision to use us.

The real choice, no matter what our age, is what are we going to be used by as we grow older? Do we give ourselves to a future of our own creation and commitment or do we allow ourselves to be swept along in the drift of time and become trapped in a historically determined future?