Thursday, September 2, 2010

Time Doesn't Vanish

I like to save interesting quotations and use them as the basis for reflection or writing. I think of them as seedlings, some of which will take root somewhere. My journal contains hundreds of these, including this statement by Isaac Bashevis Singer:

"What happens to a day once it is gone? To the storyteller, yesterday is still
here, as are the years and the decades gone by. In stories, time does not
vanish. For the writer and his readers, all creatures go on living forever.
What happened long ago is still present."

This statement is full of suggestiveness: I think about characters in Shakespeare, for example, who remain eternally young or old or witty or evil. I think about the act of reading as kind of remembering, just as writing is remembering. Or about reading as a spiritual activity because it gives us access to "time out of time." Such transcendent literary moments come not only in reading someone like Proust but in any work of fiction, or absorbing non-fiction, in which we lose our awareness of ourselves so that "time" (our daily routine) seems to stop and we are able to enter another, imagined or remembered world.

The presence of the past in the present is a theme in T. S. Eliot, and I suppose I have been most influenced by his poetic thinking on the eternal present, or what in religious circles is called the sacrament of the present moment.

When I close my eyes and shut out all the inner voices, refusing to think about the future or the past but become aware only of my breathing, I am able to enter fully into the present, which alone is real, which alone gives me access to God, who is present to me in the present moment. I cannot find God in what is past and surely not in what has not yet come to be.

So for me Singer's statement goes beyond the literary into the contemplative. And it reminds me of the liturgy of the church in which past events, such as the Crucifixion, are re-presented throughout the year as we give attention to them individually and communally. Long-dead saints, too, like figures from the Bible, remain alive to us.

To live, as animals do, in a continual present seems to me a great blessing. I have often thought about this in relation to our cat's inner life as she stares into space for hours in a life that seems to have little purpose. I see her as fortunate in not being tormented by past events or preoccupied by worries: she does not know there is a future and lives every day as if it were part of one, continual stream of timelessness. She dwells in the timeless present without knowing it.

For the neurobiologist, however, such a permanent state of being in the present seems like a prison in contrast to the capacity of the human brain. Our frontal lobe allows us to do what our pets cannot: vacate the present and experience the future before it happens; from the scientific perspective, then, evolution has given us a frontal lobe that was designed to think (hopefully, one presumes) of the future. (This is what I garnered from a recent book by the psychologist Daniel Gilbert.)

Yet for me the future is mainly a source of worry and anxiety. Rather than thinking of it as the past getting younger, as my wife, Lynn, once said, I see my own future as one of progressive deterioration and decline. So I envy our cat Lizzie and all other animals who can live in the timeless present, which is available to me in reading and in prayerful contemplation.

1 comment:

jmccarey said...

Wow! That is powerful. Lynn's observation is a thing of beauty and your thoughts are immeasurable. What is the 'sacrament of the present moment'. I've never heard this but I am glad it exists.