The Problem of Time

[1300 words]

Sometimes, we feel like we don’t have enough time, or that time is running out, or something like that. That’s the problem of time.

Now, to the solutions. Primarily changing the way we think, and secondarily, actually doing something about it.

The most basic option is to figure out what you want to do, then stop doing the things you don’t want. You’ll be too busy being constantly engaged by what remains to think about time.

But that one’s obvious.

There is no time. There is no space. There is no you.

Before, people used to say “When the sun comes up, we’ll walk over to that mountain. When it goes down, we’ll come back here.”

And that’s it.

My friend Tenzin

First off: “OMG he said there’s no time, and then he said ‘before’!”

Haha, very funny — congratulations, you’ve noticed how language works.

Now, to elucidate: time, space, and “I” are all mental constructs we use to interpret our experience. We can’t take them too seriously. Each one of them is just a story — a pathway of thought — a tool for understanding. And — crucially — a tool for interpersonal coordination.

Imagine some monkeys want to coordinate their movements. They might point and hoot and holler. Eventually, that will become refined into something like language. When it gets to the point where they can say “when the sun goes up, we go there”, then that’s basically reached the maximum point it needs to for most practical purposes.

It didn’t stop there, though. The conversation continued. Some clown asked, “wait — what are we talking about? What is that thing that happens between the sun going up and going down? How can we measure it more precisely?”

And that conversation, my friends… has gotten a little bit out of hand.

The thing is, though… we live in a world with clocks and calendars and complex economies. That presupposes that the conversation got a bit out of hand. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be where we are today. But we are, so it did.

However. On an individual level, at the very least, we can walk this one back a little bit. We can start to stop taking the notion of time quite so seriously, and instead take it with a grain of salt: treat it as a matter of convenience and convention.

Anyway. Onto another solution.

I reckon you just gotta let time happen to you.

My friend Connor

This is wise, but I think it misses the mark slightly.

It’s not really as if time happens to us. It’s more that we are time.

As far as I can tell, I am in constant motion. I move around here and there in physical space, and I move around here and there in mental space. The way I experience myself, I have one thought and then another and then another… I don’t just experience my whole life in one freeze-frame.

So trying to escape time is nothing more than trying to escape yourself. It’s like trying to escape mind and body. Wh…… what exactly would be left, at that point? I mean, yeah, I know what would be left… but we don’t talk about that, remember?

So it’s less “you gotta let time happen to you”, and more “just be yourself.”

Probably the most important point here comes from my friend Zhuang Zhou. Roughly translated:

Treat things as things and don’t be turned into a thing by things.

Master Z

As we established at the top: time is a thing. Not a physical thing, like a rock, but a mental thing: a concept.

Let’s start with physical things. Let’s say you wear a suit.
Make sure that it’s you wearing the suit, and not the suit wearing you.
Make sure you’re not just a mobile mannequin to display this piece of fabric.
It’s there to serve your purposes, not vice versa.

Or take a house. Are you using it to keep warm and cozy, or is it using you so that it, like Pinocchio, can transform from “a pile of wood and rocks” into a “house”? Are you taking shelter in it? Or is it keeping you as a pet?

Same thing with time.

Is time using you, or are you using time?

Now, of course, these utilitarian terms are grossly misleading — why see it as if you are using one another when you could have a more friendly process of mutual creation?

But you get the point.

Now — what about if you actually want more time?

Well, first of all, understand that you’re insane. But OK.

Option 1: Life extension

The classic solution.

First of all: don’t worry, we’re all living longer anyway, on average. So you don’t actually have to do anything about it.

If you do want to do something about it, there are two strategies.

You can be self-centered about it, and just try to extend your own life. That’s fine, but then you might hit a snag somewhere along the line, and other people might not like you enough to help you.

Or you can be selfless and altruistic. That way, you’ll be happier, and that will make you live longer. But eventually, you’ll be starting to fall apart, and with the resources it would take to keep you going for a little while longer, you could keep many, many, many more of the least well off going for much, much, much longer. So you will refuse the treatment, and die for your misplaced sense of shame and modesty.

As far as I can tell, these are the limits. The longer time goes on, the further we can push these limits back, but I don’t currently see a way to transcend them in any practical sense.

Option 2: Make a copy of yourself

So you yourself will ‘run out of time’, but you can make another you that won’t, yet.

Now — let’s say you make a perfect carbon copy of yourself. Every single atom in exactly the same arrangement as you, in a given moment.

Alright. Now let’s say someone were to slap that copy.

Would you feel the sting?


Well then, you might as well just have a kid. Or write a book. I hear these are more fun.

Option 3: Time dilation

We have a malleable rate at which we can perceive time. Through ‘external’ means (drugs, neural implants) or internal means (meditation), you can play around with this, such that a minute feels like an hour used to, etc.

My guess is that this will get really fashionable at some point.

But… I dunno, man. I’m really, really not sure that’s the best idea.

You keep going with this, and you quickly get past the seconds becoming years, and just hit upon eternity. You close your eyes, and then an eternity later, you open them again, and the sun is that much further along in the sky, and you’re like “Oh, looks like it has been about an hour in clock-time”.

And at that point, it’s like “……jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeez, man. How much fucking eternity do you need?!”

If you hang around places where people meditate a lot, you occasionally bump into people who have clearly spent years in there. Yeeeaars!!!

And, like, dude.

What can I say about it beyond: …are you guys OK? Far be it from me to dissuade you from your path, but, like… no, nothing. Never mind.

I reckon that covers most of the options.

Some addenda:

Bergson says time is like a snowball. Cus sometimes, it really does feel like it’s getting more intense as it goes on.

He also says it’s like a thread. That’s a really good one. You can string it out and make it a straight line, like “time’s arrow”. Or you can tie it in a loop. Or you can overlap it on itself, or even cut it up, like we do with memory and narrative. So, the thread is a very flexible metaphor.

Lastly, the Jewish perspective.

What is time?

One damned thing after another.

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