Child's Play

Time is a game played beautifully by children.

-- Heraclitus

"I’m bored,” my 11-year-old granddaughter Alex announced when she was out to dinner with the family recently. She was the only child at the table, which made things tough for her. Her daddy had already impounded her phone to force her to interact with the grownups. The seafood restaurant where we were dining had laid down big sheets of butcher-block paper in lieu of a tablecloth. The waitress gave Alex a cup full of crayons to keep her occupied while we waited for the food to arrive. But the crayons kept her diverted for only so long.

“I’m bored,” Alex repeated, more emphatically this time. When my own kids were growing up, I had various stratagems for dealing with their boredom. Often I would tell them, “If you are bored, I will find something for you to do.” They knew this meant I would find some chore for them to do, the threat of which was often enough to send them scurrying for cover. With Alex, I tried a different tack. “We grownups are bored,” I told her. “What will you do to keep us entertained?”

I am some thirty years removed from daily interaction with children, so I forget what it is like to have to have to deal with restless young minds. When I had kids that age, there were no smart phones, iPads or laptops to cater to people with short attention spans. It is tempting for parents now to leave children to their own (electronic) devices, just as many parents back then plopped their children down in front of the TV to provide a little respite from their incessant demands. Alas, while these stratagems may buy a little peace in the near term, they only exacerbate the problem of stunted attention spans. According to a Microsoft study, the proliferation of electronic devices has been accompanied by a one-third drop in the average human attention span from about 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015 (less than a goldfish’s nine-second attention span).

An 11-year-old girl has long since internalized the sometimes agonizingly slow passage of time, particularly when in the company of boring grownups. Despite Kant’s view that our sense of time is innate, developmental psychologists have since determined that small children have no real concept of time at all. I used the word “concept” advisedly, because there are now indications that even babies pick up on the fact that “everything flows and nothing abides,” to steal a phrase from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. However, until they reach the age of seven or eight, all change takes place within the frame of the present moment, and children only gradually acquire the understanding that time has duration that can be segmented into past, present and future.

The operant word here is duration. We get the impression that time moves uninterrupted from past to future, with a fleeting stop in the present. We all have a palpable feeling of being propelled forward by powerful currents of time. But what exactly is moving? If nothing abides, as Heraclitus said, what can we point to? The events that happened in the past no longer exist, except in memory. The future hasn’t arrived yet and exists as nothing more than a thought about what might happen next. That leaves only the present moment, that fleeting stop between past and future. And we can’t even lay hold of the present before it has slipped through our fingers into the past. Heraclitus was right when he said it 2,500 years ago: everything flows but nothing abides. There is no duration, no time other than as an abstract measure of change.

So it turns out small children have a better grasp of reality than their elders. They see things as they are, not as we think they are. As soon as we start thinking in words, the clock starts ticking, because time is embedded in the grammar of our thoughts. Things as they are only happen right now, not in the past or future, which exist exclusively in the realm of thought. These thoughts become externalized, and soon we operate under the misapprehension that they are attributes of the world around us. Newton’s “clockwork universe” hinges on the assertion that “absolute, true, and mathematical time, in and of itself and of its own nature, without reference to anything external, flows uniformly and by another name is called duration.” Einstein disposed of this notion more than a century ago. Still, we can’t get the thoughts out of our mind. As the 17th-century mystical poet Angelus Silesius put it:

Time is of your own making;
Its clock ticks in your head.
The moment you stop thought
Time too stops dead.

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