Who hasn’t wished they could travel through time? Some of us fantasize about visiting an intriguing historical epoch in the past. Many of us want a hands-on trip into the future. Writer H.G. Wells certainly was not the first person to ever dream of building a time machine.
We may have encountered Albert Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity that basically states that time and space are aspects of the same thing. One aspect of the theory claims that when ones speed is much faster, relative to other objects, time goes slower for the traveller than for those left behind.
A scenario might include you leaving Earth in a spaceship zooming at around 99% of the speed of light at age 20. When you return to Earth after celebrating five birthdays, you discover that your peers are all 70-years-old. In other words there’s 50-year gap. The idea is fascinating, but, at the moment, impossible to achieve.
There has been speculation about using wormholes and space warps to not only travel through time, but to get to the far reaches of our Galaxy and elsewhere, swiftly. The whole idea of space-time travel is far beyond the scope of my skimpy knowledge of theoretical physics and the parameters of this little blog post.
I want to touch more on the philosophical nature of our practical experience of time. We have long thought about time as a progression or timeline. The concept of past, present, future makes up most timelines.
Time, as a practical tool exists to serve us. If you want to catch the next flight from Omaha to Chicago, you need to coordinate your appearance at the departure gate at Eppley Airfield for the appropriate airliner. The flight crew must know exactly when to take off and judge the expected arrival at O’Hare International Airport. Your friend needs to know your expected arrival in order to meet you on the concourse.
Your personal visit from Nebraska to Chicago has its own timeline. In the past, you received an invitation to visit from your friend. You requested time off from work. You booked the flight. Then drove to Omaha for the journey. The aircraft flew through the atmosphere to arrive at its destination. In the present, you see your friend waving at you. You anticipate the future as a pleasant visit with your friend and a tour around the Chicago vicinity.
A timeline is a peculiar thing. In this particular timeline, time began with the decision of your friend to invite you to see him in Chicago. At that moment, your friend was acting in the present. The moment you opened his email message was also, once in the present. All of the decision making, planning, and physical actions that brought you to O’Hare Airport were at, one time, in the present. Now, in the present moment, all of that is in the past. All of those things are only remembered as imperfect thought impulses in your brain.
In the present moment, your awareness is focused on the greeting of your friend in the busy environment of the airport concourse. This present moment will very soon join the other moments as part of the past. In the next present moment your friend enthusiastically hugs you and expresses his joy at seeing you. That moment quickly passes, too. More moments arrive and pass. If you stop to analyze the situation, it seems like you are travelling along a straight line that is fueled by the consumption of present moments.
All of these present moments seem like the transformation of the future into memories of the past. In a personal sense, time is awareness of the experiencing of life. The trip to Omaha took ten-minutes longer than usual because of a highway detour around a construction zone. The aircraft arrived a few minutes ahead of schedule due to favorable flying conditions and a helpful tailwind. The timeline, at once, seems predetermined yet also ambiguous.
If a person casually recalls the past, events along the timeline appear to be set in stone. The present moment is presently happening. It is what it is right now. We ponder the future and visualize various possibilities and scenarios.
What will we choose tomorrow that will be only a memory next week?
We are admonished by pop psychology to live in the present. Is this really possible beyond meditation and periods of concentration? Our minds are constantly churning over events of the past and anticipating events that might happen in the future. You are probably grateful that your trip to Chicago was swift and pleasant. You’re very happy now, to be in the present with your friend. In the next moment of now, you worry about returning to Nebraska and having to catch up on a backlog of work. The worry about the future portion of your timeline has already tainted your visit with your friend.
The personal experience of time is a product of thought. We mentally construct ideas and visions of the past and the future within the present moments. I glance at my wristwatch and am surprised that an hour has already elapsed since I began writing this post. While I was contemplating the nature of timelines, I was so engrossed in my task, that I lost track of time. Isn’t that a funny paradox?
It is here, at this particular place on the timeline that we forget about time and simply exist as people going about our business. It is here, that it is possible to pause the timeline and simply be aware of this precious, delicious life. This break will exist as long as we wish to just take in all that is going on around us.
Then, without warning, we’re reengaged with the timeline.