Posts Tagged ‘time’

Lives renewed

It’s good news for a British couple who won over £40million on the lottery, but I wonder about how it will change their lives.  Will the change really be for the better (no pun intended)?

I have read, at various times, how big winners have vowed that their new riches shall not make them wasteful or greedy.  They promise that they will continue to live in their modest house, keep working as usual, take normal holidays and, at most, indulge themselves in a few of life’s little luxuries.  All very well and good, we might think.  But it does disturb me that a wealthy person should hold his old job, which he no longer needs to maintain himself and his family, rather than resign it and give another person the chance to earn an honest living.  Likewise, isn’t it a little selfish to keep the old terraced house, when they could so easily make it available to a young couple who really need it?

Thoughts like these were going through my mind as I read a charming book about a 19thC parson.  He was not a wealthy man ; but he did know that, one day, he would inherit £2700 – not a great fortune even in those days ; but certainly enough to remove any acute financial anxieties he otherwise might have had.

As a curate, he was keen to have his own parish ; to be his own boss, as it were.  But the parish he greatly wished for – and which he might have successfully applied for – was beyond his means.  He had noticed how the run-down vicarage was constantly being fixed by carpenters, masons, tilers and so forth.  And the poor parson must have been at his wit’s end to keep the place habitable.

So the curate gave up on that idea.  He resigned his curacy (as his time was up) and lived at his parents’ expense while awaiting a new opportunity.

Well, the question arises, “What should the child of wealthy parents do to occupy his time?”  He would not have thought of taking a job, and thereby deprive a poor man of the chance of making a living.  He would not go into trade, for the same reason.  He might applied for another curacy ; but that would have deprived a promising newcomer.

So, he did the decent thing.  He simply made himself useful to other parishes, as well as his old one.  He was greatly respected and had many friends among both rich and poor alike.  He had saved lives, he had helped farmers with their labours, he had dug the gardens of poor widows, and he had given hope to many.  And he never took a shilling.

Perhaps the curate had read some of William Cobbett, who was a farmer, “Money,” he said, “Is like muck – no good unless it be spread.”  So the wealthy have a duty to spread their money ; to spend it wisely and to invest it honestly.

We might add that time also is for spreading ; for giving in charity ; for receiving with gratitude.

I don’t know what the lucky couple, who won the jackpot, will do with the aid of their fortune.  But I hope they don’t do anything vain, like hang on to their old jobs, their old house and their old habits.

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In a sense, everything is history.  For example, when I look at an object such as my computer screen, I am aware that I see it not as it is but as it was a fraction of a second ago ; this is because it takes a definite length of time for it to be neurologically processed and to be presented to conscious awareness.  When we move away from that kind of example towards more everyday awarenesses, to thinking about what to have for breakfast for example, things get even more historical ; if I decide on cornflakes, then where does my liking of them come from if not from pleasant memories of breakfasts past?

In a sense, then, while the arrow of time is always pointing forward, our sense perceptions of the world are always pointing backward.  It is as if Nature made us to feel more comfortable to look at the past rather than the future.

And in a sense, everything is spiritual.  For, even though I can persuade myself that I am looking at a material thing as I gaze at the computer screen, the moment I start to think about it, it becomes entirely a phenomenon of consciousness ; i.e., not material at all but spiritual.

These thoughts and others like them were crossing my mind as I enjoyed reading the history of the events following the Norman conquest, from the time of King William himself to King John.  I was conscious of enjoying that period of history as a purely spiritual pleasure ; for there is no way I could possibly enjoy it as a sensory one.  I might have imagined what it is like to be clad in heavy chain mail on the Sussex Downs ; I might have imagined what the weight of a swinging sword or mace might feel like ; I might have imagined the pain of taking an arrow-hit in the eye.  But there is no way that I can experience these things that are long in the past and beyond hope (or fear) of repetition.

“How wonderful life must be for the historian, I thought, living one’s subject entirely through one’s imagination!”

And imagination is but one short step back from its alluring cousin, fantasy.  “How comforting it would be,” I thought, “If the nobler Anglo-Saxons had never allowed themselves to become embroiled with those ghastly Normans and French!”

But then, history is history, as they say, and the events cannot be realistically imagined as being different from what they actually were.  All ‘what if’ scenarios are mere fantasy.  Perhaps that is why so many students of history see their subject as elaborate lists of dates, names and deeds ; nice and safe lists with little margin for error.  But surely this is not history at all ; it is  little more than chronology.

So, perhaps that is why they also like to have each item in the list tagged with the opinion of their teacher ; in the belief that this somehow adds veracity to the content of the list.  But such opinions are so often conditioned by the political opinions of the teacher, which always contaminate history with modern ideas alien to the age being studied.

Of course, history is bound to contain large amounts of historians’ opinion, but I do not think that this is what it is really about.  For, surely, no subject is worthy of study unless the student is in some way in love with the subject being studied.  And what is being studied in ‘History’?  it has to be simply people.  So the first requirement of an historian is to love people and, from that, to desire to know what they did and why they did it.  The ‘what’ is easy enough ; that is the bare menu.  But the ‘why’ is where the recipe is ; it leads to the kitchen where the tale of entire nations and civilisations is cooked up.

History is a tale with many story-lines, therefore with as many aims ; but apparently without an over-arching plot.  In 1066 nobody in England had the faintest suspicion of a Hanoverian monarch.  History has many chronologists but not an all-knowing author.

And yet there are patterns in history, which suggests something about human nature.  And the patterns do not lead to mere repetition of events, which suggests that human nature is changing.  For example, in general, the farther back we go, the more violent are the methods of government ; and this suggests that we are moving in a direction where force as a method is giving way to persuasion.  And violence, of course, is the outcome of ways of seeing the world and of ways of thinking.
Therefore, it seems to me that history is the tale of the evolution of human consciousness.  It is a spiritual tale.

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Just one of the satisfying things about retirement is that one is out of the rat race ; in fact, one is out of all races.  And this is satisfying because the rat moves so fast, as fast as the hare ; and, like the hare, it overlooks many things that the tortoise knows well.  It isn’t a question of whether the tortoise leads a better life than the hare, but of whether it is better to sample both kinds of life.  We might say that the hare is a doer, while the tortoise is a thinker.  The hare enjoys life ; the tortoise contemplates it and meditates upon it.

While I was scribbling some notes about the double-life of the rose plant I was already thinking about its triple-life.  I posted the double-life a few minutes ago, so you can see it as it appears next to this one.

So, in its double-life, the rose lives as a physical thing in the flower pot ; and also within the brain of the beholder ; in these two places it grows day by day.  What is remarkable about the rose in the brain is that its entire life can be captured, as it were, by the observer ; and that life can be enjoyed again and again simply recalling it.

But I am getting ahead of myself here ; for to recall something is to bring it into conscious awareness.  But memories in the brain are not conscious ; they are merely the physical arrangements of brain cells.  It is those physical arrangements that we consult when we want to re-enjoy the colours, scents and other things that define the rose for us.

The hare is content simply to enjoy these things, but the tortoise likes to think a little deeper about that enjoyment.  The tortoise says, “Hold on now, you have told me that the rose has its life in the flower pot ; then that it has a second life in the neurones of the brain.  That is mysterious enough.  But now you are telling me that the rose has a third life – a life enjoyed as my conscious memories of it.”  To which, I can only reply in the affirmative.  The third life of the rose is a remarkable one, for it is potentially immortal.

It is fairly clear to us that the life of the rose in the pot follows the arrow of time.  It begins as a cutting ; it sprouts buds and roots ; it grows taller and spreads wider ; it flowers ; it reproduces ; and eventually, after a number of seasons, it perishes.

Not so in my conscious awareness.  For here, I may give the rose many new lives, simply by recalling what I have seen it do in its pot.  I can recall the rose at any episode in its life and hold that episode for as long as I like ; I can stop the arrow of time.  I can even recall the life of the rose and run it backwards, seeing the rose first in its old age and then at progressively earlier ages until it becomes a mere cutting again.    I can reverse the arrow of time.

The rose as I understand it in my mind has a sort of immortality.  It will live in my mind for as long as my mind exists – and potentially for much longer than the rose in the pot exists.

So far so interesting.  So far so mysterious.  But the tortoise will not let the matter rest there, for he is a thinker ; and all thoughts lead on to other thoughts.

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Just one of the pleasures of being officially retired is that one has the leisure to do pretty much what one likes.  Retirement is a time to be aware of all the things one has not yet done ; all those things that one would have done if only there had been the time.  But it must not be allowed to become a time of regret or reproach ; not a time for angst over missed opportunities.  There need be no recrimination attached to our omissions for, after all, if one was not reading High Lit. or not exploring the wilder forests and rivers or not driving Formula One cars, it was only because one was doing something else instead.

I can remember reflecting on this theme when I was young ; and remember thinking at the time that I had just hit upon an original idea ; a new insight into the nature of the world. Such is the vanity of youth.  But such vanity was dispelled when I came to reflect more effectively on things I had read (in a casual sort of way) in childhood.  And the vanity was decisively crushed when I dipped into a book of short stories which illustrated dramatically just what I had supposed was my piece of ‘original’ thinking ; for I discovered that Beirce and Poe had long since illustrated the theme beautifully and succinctly and memorably.  And John Fowles did the same in one of his novels (The French Lieutenant’s Woman?).

The world is such that very often we can usefully do only one thing at a time.  The traveller arrives at a junction in the road ; he may turn left or turn right, but not both.  You decide on a day out with the children ; you may go to the beach or to the forest, but not both.  You sit down to write a blog post ; you may write about this or about that, but not both.  To try to do even just two things at the same time generally leads to incoherence.

As it is with small things, so it is with the big.  You might decide to be an engineer or you might decide to be a lawyer ; a sailor or a forester ; a teacher or a train driver.  It is just possible to have a go at all six of these occupations ; but, if you wish to make your mark upon the world, you generally have to choose just one – at least as a major ; and that choice generally has to be made early.  Yes, career choices have to be made at exactly the time when we are least fitted to make a considered judgement.

Painting his word-picture on a wider canvas, Plato made this point in his account of The Myth of Er.  This account describes the Pythagorean eschatology, the story of life and death.  It is beautifully told and is both heartening and tragic.  More importantly, like all enduring myths, it has the ring of truth to it despite its contemporary subject matter.

So life is about choices.   And retirement is the time to review one’s choices – without too much regret and without losing sight of the fact that one may at last take up some interest which has lain dormant for so long.  And, if you can no longer hope to be what you wanted to be, you can at least write about it.  😉

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We do not seem to have a developed sense of time that reveals itself in consciousness.  True, we often become aware that time has passed ; but that awareness is much more vague than our sense of, say, the distance between two objects that we have in view ; or of the direction and intensity of a sound.

Perhaps that is why we have a tendency to be less conscious of history than we are, say, of territory ; and why we are less conscious of our ancestors than we are of the people around us.  We almost all think of ‘society’ as those people who happen to be walking about at this moment.  The dead and the yet-to-be-born are ignored.

I’m reminded of words by that great Liberal, Chesterton, “I m a true democrat.  I believe that the dead should have a vote.”  Yes, and why not?  Was it not they who worked and often suffered to make the world which we enjoy?  Were their labours in vain?

So, while welcoming the chance to make the world a better place, I also welcome the chance to preserve and adapt the fruits of past centuries.  Change for the sake of change, or even change for the sake of a ‘good idea’, is simply vandalism and no democracy should countenance it.  Likewise, any change that does reckonable damage to our concept of the past is deplorable.

Just as people are not mere machines, so neither is a society or a nation.  Living things grow and adapt organically, from within ; and not mechanically by forces from without.

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Genesis 2

What is it that drives us to seek answers to ultimate questions?  If ever we were to discover the answer to a question such as, What is the origin of life?  –  what difference would it make to our lives?  In our everyday lives of work and love, fishing and gardening, what would we be doing that is different from what we’re doing now?  I wonder why we have such big thoughts at all.

The origin of the universe is interesting.  The popular notion now is that it all began with a Big Bang.  But nobody has ever seen what it was that went bang and nobody knows why it went bang ; or how.  It is like a penny banger without a blue touch-paper.  In fact it is even more interesting than that.  For that original entity apparently contained all that was needed to create the entire universe, and yet it could have had no mass ; for mass requires at least two entities.  It contained nothing, and yet it contained everything.  It had no dimensions in either space or time. It was invisible in both the literal and figurative senses.

Even more fascinating is that there was no other being to observe it, either on the inside or the outside.  It was all alone.

Even now, there is no shred of scientific evidence that this singular object existed except in the mind of Man. Why ought we believe it ever existed?  Does it matter?


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My invitation to devise a little experiment with time is a good example of how ideas grow in the mind.  As I explained, the experiment has been done before ; and it was probably serendipitous.  Like most experiments, in itself it is of little moment ; but, like a small mustard seed, it has potential for growth provided it is planted in a fertile mind ; a mind that is regularly turned over and with lots of compost in it.

First, imagine the experiment to be done.  Imagine sitting  (with sandwiches and the Thermos) on a hillside that overlooks a winding country lane some way below ; the lane is hedged on both sides and there are trees here and there ; also you see fields, some arable, some meadow.  And, casting your gaze from left to right along the lane, you notice first a cottage, then a large oak a few hundred yards further on, and then further on a cow showing an intense interest in the lush grass in the verge – grass that it cannot reach.

With this glorious panorama in your mind, you then notice a man coming into view ; he is walking along the lane, entering from your left.  You wonder what he is doing there.  Clearly he is going somewhere.  He has a purpose.  Is he going to the cottage?  Is he intent on climbing the oak?  Does he have an appointment with the cow?  Or is he making his way along the entire length of the lane and out of your field of vision?  You don’t know, so you watch and wait.

You notice that, because of the hedges and bends in the lane, the man cannot see the cottage or the oak or the cow all at once.  He must encounter them one at a time.

He passes the cottage and looks at it.  You realise that, while he is able to see the cottage, it is in his present time ; but that, once he is out of sight of it,  then it is in his past time.  He can know the cottage only from his memory.  But – for you, the cottage is still in your present time.

When he reaches the oak, it enters into his present time from out of his future time.  But, again, for you, the oak had always been in your present time ; and it remains so even when it has entered his past time.

At this stage, of course, the cow is in his future time and he has no idea that it even exists, except as a possibility.  But you have all along known it to be there.

So, you see, this Time thing seem to be all about points of view.  And it seems to be bound up with Space.  A number of people in the nineteenth century pondered this experiment, and between them came up with some very interesting ideas.  But the question of space/time is far from settled, even today.

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