I’ll be honest: I’ve always had a contentious relationship with time. I experience the precision of our modern-day measurements of time as tyrannical. The need to be somewhere at a particular time (even if it’s a time I’ve agreed to) annoys me and I often regard time as a despotic force that pulls me out of my body’s natural rhythms. When I was a child, I often stopped what I was doing to study the world around me. “Dawdling” my mother called it, and I learned early-on that it was unacceptable. Once I became so absorbed in watching the clouds that I was late to school. (I thought I’d made a singular discovery – that clouds moved. I was disappointed that nobody seemed impressed with this startling revelation.)
Tonight we’ll be turning our clocks ahead an hour, which usually gives me an on-the-ground version of jet-lag for about a week as my inner clock adjusts. It’s got me thinking about how the perception of time has changed over generations and cultures.
Seventeenth century Europeans had clocks and pocket-watches. I don’t know how common they were in Massachusetts Bay Colony, but given that the Puritans were an orderly and largely middle-class population, I’m sure some, if not many, owned time-keeping devices. That doesn’t mean they were synchronized for travel or precision as they are today, but people had a farily clear idea of what time it was. They had night watchmen who walked through town calling out the hour. They had set times for meetings and worship.
For the Puritans, time was a linear experience, with starting and ending points. Over the course of a lifetime, time could be organized by milestones, and once they were passed, they couldn’t be revisited. Each week had a schedule, with some tasks (such as laundry) usually assigned to specific days. Sunday was set aside as a time of public worship and rest, when all non-essential tasks were suspended. It was important for community members to honor this schedule. If a task or event was skipped, it created problems, not just for the individual, but often for the community.
The native sense of time was different. Ordered by seasonal and diurnal cycles, time was experienced as cyclical. It was more important to complete a task or stay with an interaction than to devote a specified amount of time to it. If tasks or events were skipped, there wasn’t the sense that they were past forever, but that they would at some point come up again.
I’m sympathetic to the native view because it matches my own experience of time, especially as I’ve grown older and become more attuned to how quickly time passes. What I find myself seeking – and welcoming – are those life experiences when time itself seems to disappear. This happens when I’m completely present in the moment – not thinking about the past or the future. It happens when I’m deeply absorbed in writing, or focusing all my attention on someone I’m listening to, or watching a fox hunt in the snow-covered field above our house. Then time is no longer a tyrant. In fact, it doesn’t exist.