David Bouchier: Time After Time

Feb 4, 2019

Several years ago I gave up wearing a watch, not because of any metaphysical uncertainty about the reality of time, but simply because the watch band began to irritate my wrist. I tried all kinds of bands – leather, plastic, metal – and eventually took to keeping the watch in my pocket, 19th century style. But then, I suppose, I had a kind of epiphany. Did I actually care what time it really was, all the time? Some watches are status symbols, but mine wasn’t. If I had ever been accosted by a street mugger he probably would have looked at my Timex with contempt and given me his watch. Now, at least, I could avoid that embarrassment. I put my watch away for good, and didn’t even buy a smart phone as a substitute because I didn’t want to exchange one kind of slavery for another.

But I never got the chance to enjoy my disconnection from the 24-hour alarm clock of life, because it never happened. Clocks are everywhere. Looking around the room where I work I find two clocks linked to the atomic clock in Colorado that tell time to a microsecond, one regular old battery-driven clock, one clock on each of the two computers, and I just noticed that there’s one on the telephone screen too – a total of six in a room 15-feet square. A count around the rest of the house revealed nine more, plus one in the car. All of them are ticking down the seconds, minutes and hours to…what? The apocalypse? The 2020 election? Brexit? Lunchtime? Or to something we don’t want to think about? We don’t know because we can’t see the future, no matter how many watches we have or how expensive they are. But at least the ticking bomb of time is not physically strapped to my body.

Time may not be a good joke, but it certainly is a joke of some kind. The general theory of relativity, insofar as I understand it which I don’t, suggests that time is a cosmic joke played on us by the nature of the universe. The theory suggests that time is not fixed but relative, in which case nobody knows what time it really is. This fits with our everyday experience. We all understand that time is relative. A two-week vacation goes by in a flash whereas an hour on a hard seat in the Department of Motor Vehicles can stretch out for years. Your clock is a deceiver, like your bathroom scale. Yet the world seems absorbed and obsessed by clock time, and how to defeat it. In the days of sailing ships it took up to six weeks to cross the Atlantic. Now an hour of delay at the airport sends travelers into a frenzy of rage and anxiety.

Putting away my watch has not freed me entirely from the tyranny of time, but it has had a calming influence. Clocks and watches fix our attention always on the future, and what is going to happen next. But we can never get ahead of time, because it always ends right here, right now, and the future is still in the future. It’s a moving frontier, or a wall if you prefer. We can never sneak through it or see over it. Once we realize this, we can relax. As for the future, if we accept the wisdom of the highest authority, we’ll see what happens.

Copyright: David Bouchier