Forever Now

Forever…is composed of Nows…

-- Emily Dickinson

Not long ago my attention was riveted by this headline in the Washington Post: “Gwen Ifill Is Forever Now.” Although I was a big fan of the late Gwen Ifill, the headline grabbed my attention for reasons that had nothing to do with the contents of the article, which announced a commemorative Forever Stamp honoring the PBS news anchor as part of the U.S. Postal Service’s Black Heritage series. As it happened, I had been giving a lot of thought to time and to the concept of now when the article ran. What jumped out at me was the phrase “forever now,” which neatly encapsulates for me the essence of nowness and, I would argue, also solves the conundrum of time.

Physicists and philosophers have been scratching their heads over time for millennia. For the most part, we are still in thrall to Isaac Newton’s conception of absolute time flowed uniformly throughout the universe, without reference to anything external. The only problem is that it’s not true. More than a century ago, Einstein figured out that time speeds up or slows down according to the velocity of an observer relative to a given frame of reference. He later determined that gravity can also bend time. As to what time was exactly, Einstein couldn’t say. “Time is what a clock measures,” he concluded, and left it at that. As for the notion that the universe had some sort of mechanism for keeping track of the time, Einstein marked that down to a “stubbornly persistent illusion.”

Among philosophers, Parmenides, founder of the Eleatic school in ancient Greece, believed in the oneness of physical phenomena, which meant that all perception of time, motion and plurality were illusory. His pupil Zeno devised a series of paradoxical “thought experiments” meant to demonstrate the logical fallacy of any assertions to the contrary. The most famous of these was a hypothetical footrace between Achilles and a tortoise in which Zeno demonstrated that if you gave the tortoise a head start, Achilles could never catch up. In the time it took Achilles to close the gap, the tortoise would advance some distance farther on. And once Achilles had closed the gap again, the tortoise would have advanced still farther. And so on, ad infinitum.

St. Augustine concluded in the fourth century CE that time was also essentially a matter of perception. ”I say that I measure time in my mind," he wrote.· "For everything which happens leaves an impression on it, and this impression remains after the thing itself has ceased to be.” He added, “When I measure time it is this impression that I measure.” Peter Lynds, a theorist from New Zealand, like Augustine before him, regards time as an attribute of mind rather than a property of the universe. “It's something entirely subjective that we project onto the world around us,” he writes.

If time is illusory, what happens to the concept of nowness? In debunking Newton’s conception of absolute time flowing uniformly throughout the universe, Einstein also dispensed with a single now existing everywhere at once. Similarly, in commenting on Zeno’s paradoxes, Lynds argues that motion is possible only if you eliminate instantaneous time and, along with it, anything constituting a flow of time. He argues, "With some thought it should become clear that no matter how small the time interval, or how slowly an object moves during that interval, it is still in motion and it's position is constantly changing, so it can't have a determined relative position at any time, whether during an interval, however small, or at an instant. Indeed, if it did, it couldn't be in motion.” Obviously, things actually have to move if Achilles is ever going to overtake the tortoise in their race.

Illusory or not, we experience time as a seamless succession of nows. And since no two nows are exactly the same, we assume the now is marching along in the parade of time stretching from past to future. Or, as the philosopher George Santayana once put it, "The essence of nowness runs like fire along the fuse of time.” But suppose the now doesn’t move; suppose the now is a stationary bystander watching the parade pass by. Things keep changing, of course. But the now is no longer marching in lockstep with time. Indeed, time itself no longer moves; it has no duration as such. There is only what is happening right now. 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. We have arrived at a state of forever now; indeed, that is the only place we have ever been

The U.S. Postal Service introduced Forever Stamps in 2007 to solve a problem. Every time the price of a first-class postage stamp increased, the postal service had to make large print runs of small-denomination stamps so their customers would have the correct postage as they used up their old first-class stamps. It was a good deal for customers, because the Forever Stamps were always good, no matter how much first-class postage rates increased. And the Postal Service no longer needed to undertake expensive print runs of small-denomination stamps every time rates increased.

The concept behind Forever Stamps is that they are always good right now, no matter what you paid for them — or when. In theory, you could have bought a bunch in 2007, when a first-class stamp cost 41 cents. If you still had some left today, you could put one on a birthday card to your cousin and mail it off right now and be assured your card would not be returned for insufficient postage. Forever is forever. We usually think of forever in terms of duration. But practically speaking, forever can only be experienced right now. In this case, we might remember that we bought those Forever Stamps a long time ago and will save some money if we use them to mail that birthday card right now. Or we hear that first-class postage is about to increase, so we might run out and buy some more Forever Stamps so we can save on any birthday cards we send after the rates go up in the future. But when we do, it won’t be the future any more; it will be right now. Similarly, the solution to the conundrum of time is that it is forever now, because right now is all there ever is.

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