I’ve occasionally asked myself, say in a restaurant, is the friend sitting across from me experiencing this dinner in the same moment I am? My existence is separate from his, so why shouldn’t our moments in time also be separate?
It’s as if I sense three clocks: mine, his, and objective universe time. My friend’s time pathway has intersected with mine, but maybe not at the same objective time as I arrived there. While I’m having dinner with him in my time pathway, he might be out fly-fishing in Montana. Someday his time pathway will bring him to this same dinner, but by then, I might be elsewhere in my time pathway, perhaps checking email in the back of a taxi.
My recent discovery of a poem I wrote in my teens reminded me that I’ve long been preoccupied with time:
Worlds a million light years away
Beam the past,
Point to the future.
Giving life to long-gone settings, old paintings,
Reflect the past,
Suggest the present,
Point to the future.
On the other side of the world, a day ahead,
Points to the future.
I was awed, as I still am, to think that astronomers viewing a planet light years away were seeing it as it had been eons ago. Then I must have thought how a seventeenth-century masterpiece gives us a glimpse not only into how things used to look, but also how they were perceived. It brings the past into our present. The survival of a work of art painted generations earlier might astonish us less than observation through a telescope of a remote planet’s distant past, but it’s really just as miraculous. Then there’s the likelihood that an artifact created today will one day be the past looked at from the future.
Of the four commonly accepted dimensions, time alone seems beyond our ability to combat and manipulate. In the three dimensions that make up space, we can move around and shake free of their current confines. But time is unyielding. The past is over and fixed. The present is gone before it’s begun: The moment I think I’m in the present, I’m already beyond the moment the thought came to me. As for the future, we can’t stop it from arriving again and again, like a stranger forever knocking at the door.
This deeply-felt awareness of time as a straight line is why we’re intrigued by seeming disruptions to chronology, such as the arrival of a new year in New Zealand while we in the continental United States are still mired in the one before. That the explanation immediately springs to mind in our post-Copernican era only partially diminishes our fascination. We experience something of this disorienting simultaneity with weather systems. Here in Brooklyn Heights, you can watch a rain cloud move across New York Bay to Staten Island and bypass those of us looking out from the Promenade. How can it be that there are signs of the sun breaking through cloud in the same moment that rain is scattering people just over there?
It is such coincident events that may have led to my sense of time pathways. If degrees of latitude can cause night and day to occur at the same objective time, why couldn’t other, less understood factors bring about other encroachments on time’s timeline? The possibility flies in the face of present-day physics. For example, time travel would be possible only if we could travel faster than the speed of light, but faster-than-light travel for human beings and physical objects is considered impossible.
This apparent inexorability of time fascinates, but also terrifies us. Through images of distant galaxies, we see backward and project forward by billions of years, maybe even for eternity. The vast expanse of our universe is a manifestation of time in all its grim indifference to us. How can we possibly conceive of, never mind cope with, an infinite clock? As it is, age, even for human lives measured in decades, wears us down.
Time is also eternity’s opposite: brevity. As Shakespeare put it in Sonnet 18, “summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” Time cuts short everyone and everything we value. All good things come to an end.
Perhaps an urge to reconcile dread of eternity with longing for reprises of the good things explains how Hindus came upon the idea of reincarnation, which claims immortality even as it periodically renews. It might also suggest why creation and destruction are embodied in a single god, Shiva. Could Shiva be time?
The time pathways I experience are about an event that exists until all related pathways have converged, after which, for all I know, it vanishes. By contrast, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) assumes all events and circumstances are forever preserved, even though at risk of contamination by visitors from another era. Wells’ vision was dystopian, but we also fantasize about time travel as a way to redeem the past, restoring the beautiful things and undoing its cruelties. To me, this is time travel’s powerful attraction.
So it is, without necessarily naming them as such, that we imagine time travelers in our midst. There’s the day we think for the first time in months or years of someone we once loved and, out of the blue, receive a note from them. There are the moments when we feel the presence of people long since lost to us: a father announcing his arrival home to his since-orphaned children, a wife waxing nostalgic to her widowed husband about how they used to dance together.
I’m not trying to prove that time pathways exist, any more than I would the validity of reincarnation. Aside from the laws of physics, there are commonplace explanations for the voices even non-schizophrenics hear inside the skull. But the allure of time manipulation reflects the commonplace feeling that we carry with us intangible filaments of loved ones and events whose memory we hate to think will die when we do. It doesn’t feel right. It causes us to question our purpose in being.
When that sense of time pathways comes over me, I feel my isolation in the universe. After all, if my friend at the restaurant isn’t really in the same time pathway as I am, we’re the proverbial ships passing in the night. But what if one day time ceased to be about isolation? What if time became bendable to our wishes? It’s striking that after so many previously recognized limits of our knowledge and capabilities have been breached, we still can’t make time take a break, leap ahead, double-back on itself, go sideways.
But science has a way of catching up with imagination. Maybe one day time’s time will come.
Then again, if foisting ourselves on another century were to cause the misery that Old World small pox inflicted on the denizens of the New World, we might hope time forever defies our tinkering.