Time two ways


One book that enjoys long-standing recognition among Saipan’s professionals is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was written by Robert Pirsig and, though it first hit the shelves in 1974, it’s still a popular work. I mention it occasionally.As for the book itself, it uses a motorcycle trip as a way to describe some philosophical ideas. As for mentioning what’s in the book, on today’s occasion I’ll offer this concept: time.

I don’t have any bright ideas here, I’m just interested in taking a look two different ways of envisioning, and expressing, our orientation with time.

So let’s get back to Pirsig. He appended an afterward to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in 1984. He wrote this about the ancient Greeks and their concept of time: “They saw the future as something that came upon them from behind their backs with the past receding away before their eyes.”

In other words, we can’t really see where we’re going. We can only see where we’ve been.

That seemed like a mighty freaky concept when I first read it. After all, it’s the opposite of my modern Yankee conditioning, in which we see ourselves facing the future. In this view, the future is in front of us, the past, behind us, as if the future is a road and we’re walking, or driving, along it.

“Facing the future” is so commonly said that it’s a cliche.

I try to avoid cliches like the plague, but where there’s smoke, there’s fire, so I decided to hunt for more linguistic clues that illustrate our modern concept of time.

We can consider that, for example, “foresight” involves the future, and “back then” refers to the past.

Or consider that, on the happy side of the ledger, we might “look forward” to a future event. On the unhappy side of things, if something bad happens, we want to “put it behind us” so it’s no longer in view, and then we can face the future again and “move forward.”

Well, so far, our words and concepts seem to point the same way.

But I did find an exception. The word “before” means in front of, but it also can refer to the past, so this is the opposite of the usual outlook. I’ll tally this as a minor quirk that doesn’t undermine the basic convention.

Since we started off with ancient wisdom, we might as well reach for more of it, this time from the Chinese language, which has the wisdom of the ages built into its very script.

Don’t look to me for any definitive scholarship in this realm (or in any other realm, for that matter) but, from what I see, the Chinese term for “front” is also used to refer to the past. And the term for “back” is used to refer to the future.

I’m not aware of any counter-examples, but if you know of any you can let me know. In the meantime, it looks to me that the enduring Chinese wisdom and the ancient Greek wisdom are in agreement here.

OK, so where does this leave us?

I have no idea. The whole notion of time has always had me completely stymied. I doubt I could even come up with a respectable definition of what “time” really is. We talk about it, we worry about it, we measure it, we charge for it, and we pay for it, but we’ve never even seen it.

Our terms, our metaphors, seem to treat it like we treat the other dimensions, the tangible ones, since that’s the only way we can envision things. Well, most of us, anyway. There are probably physicists who can contemplate it on another level, but they’re still at the mercy of time just as much as the rest of us are, so it’s not like they’ve reckoned their way around it. Well, not yet, anyway.

As for orienting our view of time, Pirsig agrees with the ancient Greek outlook. Of this outlook, he wrote: “When you think about it, that’s a more accurate metaphor than our present one. Who really can face the future? All you can do is project from the past, even when the past shows that such projections are often wrong. And who really can forget the past? What else is there to know?”

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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