My son called to tell me our granddaughter Alex, then not quite two, had awakened from a nap and demanded, “Papa’s house – now!” Papa is her name for me. However, Papa’s house is in Connecticut, and Alex lives with her parents in Brooklyn, so there would be no going to Papa’s house now. My son tried to explain they would be going to Papa’s house in a few weeks, which of course was utterly lost on a two-year-old – or nearly so. Two-year-olds are famous for demanding instant gratification. But in appending “now” to her demand, she was already displaying some awareness that everything can’t happen right now. As a concept, “now” exists only in relation to what has happened before or what will happen in the future, which meant that a clock must have started running in her head.
We think of time as film threading through a projector: the past winding on one reel, the future unwinding on the other, and the present moment a single frame illuminating the screen of our consciousness. In reality, of course, there is no past apart from memory, which fades with age and is erased by death. There is no future apart from our hopes and fears. There is not even a “now,” which exists only in relation to the past and future, and these exist only in the realm of thought. In reality, there is no time at all, not one single moment, apart from our thoughts. “The moment you stop thought,” wrote the 17th-century mystic Angelus Silesius, “time too stops dead.” So what then remains apart from our thoughts? Only the reality of unceasing, timeless change. For want of a better word, call it eternity.