Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Time and the time: a belated wish for the New Year

This winter, trying to come up with something tangible that my husband could buy me for Christmas—all I ever really want is for the holidays to be over—I finally settled on a wristwatch.

I took to the Internet to find the simplest possible example. If not actually analog, my new watch had to strongly espouse analog-ness: a large, circular face, with clearly visible numbers and hands—nothing else. I just wanted it to tell me the time. Compared to my phone, which I had been using for that purpose, and which then lured me onto Facebook and Twitter and myriad other distractions every time I checked it, I expected a plain watch to be pure, sanity-restoring elegance.

But looking at one ultra-basic watch after the other dredged up a visceral memory: That Clock. The one I stared at beseechingly throughout my childhood, in 1970s and 80s public school classrooms, where rote, one-size-fits-all learning ruled the day. You probably know That Clock, too. Now sold on EBay, Etsy, and elsewhere as a “vintage” or “old-school school” clock, its current incarnations still preside over all manner of institutional spaces. It’s one foot in diameter, white with slightly-too-thick black numbers and two hands. The versions at my school didn’t even have second hands, because their continuous motion and/or ticking might have drawn attention. Instead, the minute hand lurched forward, presumably regularly, with a thunk.

The institutional clock denies the bored student, or the enmeshed bureaucrat, anything to gaze at or reflect upon. It thwarts distraction, sending its seekers reluctantly back to their work. This was exactly what I had wanted from my new watch, rendered sinister. In places where time feels most oppressive, most necessary to try to accelerate or halt, the anti-aesthetic institutional clock tells us: Don’t bother. The hours and the minutes move no faster or slower than they must. Do not beseech, do not wonder. Do not look up from your task. You will learn nothing more from this dullest of clocks than the time, which is simple, quantifiable, and instantly knowable.

And yet time—as opposed to the time—is anything but dull, simple, or knowable. As I’ve gathered from reading popular cosmology books, time remains a tantalizing conundrum. What’s it made of? How does it function? How might we alter its speed or trajectory? No one really knows. What we do know is that it’s closely related to entropy, the universal tendency toward increasing disorder that originated, in our universe, with the Big Bang. Objects break. Mountains wear down. We grow old, and we die. So far, the arrow has only ever pointed one way.

Time is everything falling apart. And while we realize disorder is inevitable, we have no idea how, or when, or (often) why it will occur. Time is in fact the opposite of the time, of what That Clock says and claims to know. Time is mystery, and surprise.

We humans resemble time—mysterious, surprising, often surprised ourselves. We don’t fully know what we’re made of. But, while disorderly, we’re curious, intelligent, empathetic, creative, and courageous. When things come apart, we can put them back together in new and better ways. And while we can’t yet stop aging (and we may not actually want to), inside we can slow down or speed up, or come at the world from different angles. We can imagine.

So here is my wish for this already advancing new year: Let us embrace time as entropy, not as order. However, I don’t mean we should completely reject That Clock. In fact, we can enlist it in our efforts. Whenever we see it, or any tool of numb officialdom, let’s remember to question its message of resignation. Let That Clock—in fact, any clock, our lovely new wristwatch, even the bewitching clock in our phone—remind us to look up, to dream, wonder, and reflect more often.

And let us imagine and work toward a world where everyone can do the same.

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