Thursday, December 10, 2009

Time: A Short Note

I live on the front lines of global culture wars. Literally, as it is my job to reconcile an English Supplier with Irish colleagues, East Asian Business partners, Indian and Arab clients, and lately Polish prospects. I am forced to see where things get lost in translation. Yes, I am the translator in most cases, and I am trying to do better.

I don't want to conjure up the image that I am living at the tower of Babel. No, it seems the God's scheme of diving the mankind with languages have finally been defeated. By who else other than the masters of Pax Britannica, or Pax Americana as it should be called now. I speak mostly in English, even in the continent. Most business meetings in Poland was also conducted in English, and many people I have come in contact with have lived at least a part of their life in the Anglo-Saxon realm. So, language is less of a problem.

But fundamental concepts are. Fundamental concepts like Time and Space, as Edward Hall pointed out. Coming from India, I always found the concept of time of my Anglo-Saxon colleagues, a linear thing like a road, which can be saved or wasted [and in a way, owned], at odds with my inherent conception that time is like air, an enveloping thing which you can't save, own or waste. I have tried to explain this to many people in Britain that we wait for time, rather than save it. I have found that the concept is utterly incomprehensible to them.

I have come to realize that the Western Conception of time is mostly sequential. This is why they can conceptualise a Time Machine, which can go back and forth. Time is metaphorically like a film strip in the Western Mind, the base where a portion of life takes place. I also became aware that the only other conception possible is where time has no existence by itself, the view of Kant and Leibnitz, as they saw time as an intellectual construct men create to divide up their life sequentially. So, in this view, time does not exist by itself, but it is just an idea we need, like space, to contain our other conceptions.

This is where it gets interesting. What Kant is saying is that time is only a paradigm, a way of thinking and understanding our lives, and this does not have an existence by itself and therefore can not be saved or wasted. This is where I started understanding, finally, some of Milan Kundera and even Nietzsche - the future influences the present just as much as the past - how very profound for the world we live in. Take it another level to Kundera - people want to master the future in order to change the past - and suddenly you get a little lesson in the philosophy of history, and if one may add, of education.

Interestingly, if time is only an intellectual construct, most of the premises, we live life by, have to be modified. Time is primarily seen in a personal, real, context, as this journey from birth and childhood to death. But, then, equally real are the external context of a global and a planetary time, which is suddenly less temporal than our own perspectives. This rationale suddenly gets religious now - the concepts of time gets deeply rooted to the protestant individualism, an world seen with personal eyes, as against a world and a system of value outside us, as in a more communitarian religion or culture, which can fully capture the impersonal, and therefore, eternal conception of time.

I think the ancient Greeks got this duality fully. They saw Chronos, the god of the sequential time, like a big serpent, circling the world. He is not alone though. He comes with his companion, Ananke, inevitability. But this is still the sequential, personal time, understandable, useable and possibly a personal construct, which we live on. But, then, the Greeks also talked about Kairos - the supreme or opportune moment - which is the other conception of time, impersonal, external and not under individual control. This is much closer to the Hindu conception I have grown up with, but also close to the Kundera's sense of time where the future returns, or Cohelos where the world conspires to get you there. It is a sort of cycle beyond our control and beyond our lives and conception, perhaps. In the New Testament, Kairos is the 'the appointed time for the purpose of God'. So it is in the Hindu religion.

St Augustine debunked the Hellenic idea of circularity of Chronos and eventually delivered us into a linear, source less concept of time. But without circularity, we live without consequences and an imagined sense of linearity, lonely and selfish. This leads to many things, including the cancerous need for growth and a degerative sense of self, which are so embedded in modern thinking and the cause of so much misery across the world. Time as a container, time as an impersonal event outside our perception, is not necessarily reactive thinking; in fact, that may precisely be the answer and the healer. The point is of course to do your work and be ready, so that - in the scheme of Aristotle's scheme of rhetoric - when the right time comes, proof will be delivered. In a modern sense, you will rise to the occasion. Or, as Lincoln said, I shall study and get ready, and perhaps my time will come.

For the moment, indeed, we are in the need of a more complete understanding of time, because we must start to live a more complete life and create a world which is more compassionate.

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