The Mists of Time

I am looking at a photograph I took more than a year ago. When I snapped the picture, I was standing on rusty railroad tracks that ran straight down the center of the resulting photograph before disappearing into the foggy distance. The picture was taken early one morning in late fall. There are bare trees and scrubby bushes down the rocky embankments on either side of the track. The sun was starting to break through in the foreground, but the fog predominated in the middle distance. A little way further on, the tracks dissolved into silvery oblivion before they could converge on the horizon.

Looking at the picture now, it occurs to me it is a perfect representation of time. Spatial metaphors are often used to delineate time. The nearer an object, the closer to the present time, whether in the past or in future. Here objects become progressively more obscure as they recede into the distance. You might say they disappear into the mists of time.

In reality, of course, time does not move either forward or backward, at least not in the sense of an object moving through physical space.· Time has no spatial direction or dimension whatsoever.· If you strip away the metaphors, you are left with the thing itself, which can be measured with great precision but which essentially remains an enigma. We all have a sense of time passing — of duration — but what exactly passes? Time is not detectable by any of the physical senses, and clocks measure nothing beyond their own ticking. Time, for all practical purposes, doesn’t appear to have any tangible existence, except as an abstract measure of change.

An astronomer can look through a telescope at stars and galaxies as they existed billions of years ago, but their light can only be seen right now. The actual celestial bodies may have burned themselves out long ago. Similarly, a geologist may study rocks that were formed when our planet was new, but his hypotheses about their origins depend on what he sees right now. A paleontologist digs up bones from creatures that roamed the earth tens of millions of years ago, but his findings are based on what is in hand right now. There is evidence aplenty of things that existed before now, but the fact remains that right now is all we have to work with — and all we will ever have to work with. Right now is really all there is.

So what is it that disappears into the mist? I might vividly recall something that happened just yesterday, yet my memories of last week or decades ago are less and less distinct, much like the railroad tracks in my picture receding into the fog. But do past events recede into the mists of time, whatever that might be — or is it just the mists of memory? If the present moment is all that tangibly exists, and it has no duration in itself, then our sense of time passing must come from our recollection of previous moments. If we have no memory of prior events, every moment is sui generis. But, of course, we do remember previous moments, and we assume we are looking through a window into the past. But the memory isn’t happening in the past; it’s occurring right now.

Memory, said Ralph Waldo Emerson, is “the thread on which the beads of man are strung.” Without memory, the moments of our life follow one another in meaningless succession. Like time itself, my understanding of who I am exists only in relation to my past. Without memory there is no past and no duration, no sense of time moving forward. I am reborn from moment to moment but die just as quickly.

I gained crucial insights into the interplay of time, memory and identity as caregiver to my mother, who suffered from vascular dementia in the final years of her life.· As her memory faded, she lost not only any sense of her own past but even a firm sense of time passing. Familiar people in her life became strangers, and in the end she became a stranger to herself. I watched helplessly as her life slowly faded into the mist before disappearing altogether into oblivion.

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