I suppose this is an ageless question that has baffled humankind since the very dawn of consciousness, and indeed it has exercised the greatest minds human civilization has thrown up from St Augustine of Hippo to Einstein. Yet no proffered reason has ever satisfied us. Living as we do in a world of real chaos and chance unto which we humans have shaped as much order as we can startling accidents befall us humans about which we can do absolutely nothing. And then, and then, yes, time marches inexorably onwards. Will time ever conclude? Indeed, when did it begin? These are possibly stupid questions. Are they worth pondering at all? One might be wary of being wearied by a weight of metaphysical. Any reader of these posts will know that I like quoting that venerable poet Robert Frost - I always picture him as the swarthy old man he became in his final years rather that the virile young man of his earlier years - and especially his quip by way of riposte to the question as to what he had learned from his long life, viz., "It goes on." That about sums up the very nature of time for this writer of these words. Time passes and marches ever onwards. Again, I'm reminded also of that sage proverb we have in English - "Time and tide wait for no man." Essentially we have the same sentiments here.
One of my favourite modern philosophers, who is both a scholar as well as being a marvellously clear popularizer, is A.C. Grayling whose website one can consult by hitting this link here: ACG. Just read this wonderful reflection or meditation on time and you will get a flavour of his wonderful insight into matters important and profound:
The first mystery of time, then, is how little of it anyone has. The second is how unimaginably vast time seems on either side of the mere moments humans manage to occupy. If the universe's history were compressed into an hour, the time that humankind has existed would barely fit into the last fractions of a split second of that hour. If humanity succeeds in extinguishing itself through ecological disaster or nuclear war, the spark of intelligent life that flared in this corner of the cosmos would be scarcely noticeable between the massive weights of time that stretched before and after it. (The Form of Things: Essays on Life, Ideas and Liberty in the 21st Century, London, 2006, 35)
In my own mind several memories and thoughts are tumbling around at the moment. Indeed there are both thoughts and images in my mind at this moment. Let me share them with you. Firstly I have a picture of Marilyn Monroe in my mind, that famous one of her singing in her childlike voice "Happy Birthday" to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Then I also have that picture of her lying on her bed having taken an overdose of sleepers to end her life at the early age of 36, side by side with that of J.F.K. with his brains blown out over the trunk of his famous white Lincoln car. Then there are pictures in my mind of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, John Lennon and so on and all. All of these men, bar Gandhi, were so young and died so tragically. Let me now call your mind back to some sentences in my opening paragraph:- Living as we do in a world of real chaos and chance unto which we humans have shaped as much order as we can startling accidents befall us humans about which we can do absolutely nothing. And then, and then, yes, time marches inexorably onwards.
And there are other images to - that of the great Elvis Presley, swollen beyond recognition from years of heavy drug abuse, lying on the slab dead at an early age. There were many others, too, who died quite tragically like the great Buddy Holly (23), Jim Reeves (43), Patsy Cline (31), Jim Croce (30), Tim Buckley (27), Jeff Buckley (30) and our very own Mic Christopher (32).
Of course, there are more personal pictures rolling around my mind like those of family members, friends and past pupils who died all to young. The greatest lesson any of us can learn is that of our own mortality. Hence all the world's greatest religions and major philosophies try to answer the questions thrown up by humanity, its creativity, its destructiveness and its mortality. Buddhism, to my mind, comes closest to offering an answer in that it provides us with a way of looking at life from a stance of equanimity or from a still point in observing the breath of life right up until its extinction. It's the essentially practical psychology of living that Buddhism offers that appeals to me, one little individual among its myriad of followers and practitioners.
I have forgotten what writer said that the goal of all good literature is to teach us to die. Well, I suppose that is the goal of all religions as well. Real wisdom is to accept what we cannot understand with as much grace as possible, and continue on with our lives. We must learn not to live tied down by guilt or regret for any of our past misdoings or failures to do. We must learn to live not tied down by dependence on those gone before us on the path to the world of shadows and death. We must learn not to live tied down with unrealistic hopes and dreams for the future or, even worse fears about our future. Let us live with courage to see our very own journey out to the last moment allowed us on this earth, until the train of life stops at our final destination.
As I started this post by alluding to and quoting from A.C. Grayling I'll let his words finish this short Christmastide post:
Some people use their energy to live many lifetimes in one lifetime. Others, through timidity or lack of imagination, use up a whole lifetime living less than one lifetime. These latter in effect, eat their soup with a fork; they walk about with eyes shut, fingers in their ears, cotton-wool in their noses. Not for them the vivid, pungent sensations of living along their pulses, experiencing everything at its best... The injunction to live life to the full might better...be phrased: live all the lifetimes you can. (Ibid., 36-37)
That's it for tonight my friends. It's almost 3.00 A.M. and I must away to bed. I resolve, here and now, to eat my soup with a big soup spoon and certainly, unlike T.S. Eliot's Prufrock, I shall refrain from "measuring out my life with coffee spoons."
Above I have pasted a picture of the late great Mic Christopher, a picture in the public domain.