Ten Days to Learn About Time

morningBarney McBryde

In 1984 at Canterbury University I was studying philosophy simultaneously in the Classics Department, the Religious Studies Department and the Philosophy Department. It was an interesting experience of cross-pollination allowing me to impress my tutors with unexpected insights gleaned from their unknown colleagues down the corridor. The epistemology of Titus Lucretius Carus in De Rerum Natura illuminated surprisingly the theories of the Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy, and both could be used to good effect in the rambling discussions in my Metaphysical Topics class.

But ultimately, eighteen years of age is far too old to be studying philosophy. It is small children who are the natural philosophers. Plato’s dialogues I am sure would be more usefully studied, more perceptively understood, and more thoroughly appreciated by preschoolers rather than by lanky, greasy-haired university students.

I remember as a small child sitting on my stool at the corner of the dinner table in my assigned spot to Dad’s left and looking around at the faces of my family members, completely perplexed as to how my conscious awareness was distinct from theirs. How could I perceive this apparent event, this dinner, only from ‘my’ point of view? Did this perception reflect a reality? How did it vary from anyone else’s?

This was the time that I needed a helping hand grappling with philosophical issues—when they were real and immediate—not years later when the whole thing was just an interesting intellectual exercise.

So, if we are to investigate the mysterious concept of time, to probe its subtleties, uncover its inexplicable nature, delve into its profound control over our existence; the person to turn to is probably someone who is currently playing with their Lego, and not someone older, and certainly not a 45 year old.

At age 45 I am well past the inclination or the capacity to engage in abstruse philosophical speculation. I approach time as an experience to be lived, not as a concept to be thought about.

And yet this perspective may have value just as the ideation of our hypothetical child philosopher.

Perhaps I can explore the experience of time. There is one particularly good way of doing that.

It was the man from the Bern patent office—Albert Einstein—who pointed out that there is a relationship between time and space, between time and speed—that we can alter time by moving through space.

Have you ever run without let for . . . ten days?

There is a race held every year in New York City which goes by the improbable, yet highly accurate, name of the Ten Day Race. In this race, competitors run as far as they can in the period bluntly indicated by the name. I have run that race twice.

Nothing better exposes the peculiarities of the experience of time.

At the end of that week and a half, the whole race seems to have taken only the twinkling of an eye. I think this is because doing only one thing—putting one foot in front of the other—for so long deludes us—for our perception of time seems to be based upon observing one thing happen and that being succeeded by another thing happening. When we do only one thing, time seems to cease.

And yet despite this apparent pause in time, the runner of this race can have a simultaneous and precisely opposite experience of time. In the depth of the night—tired, exhausted, frail and blank-eyed—a mile can seem to take the better part of a year to run.

Having run this race twice in the past, I have made the inexplicable decision to run it again. It is thus that I find myself now in the throes of a long and rigorous training programme such as is necessary to undertake this race. I run long miles now that I may be better able to run in the course of the race. I am taking the current time and using it as servant to future time.

I am fortunate to have a special place in which to do this training. I run not down drear city streets but across green and rugged hills and along the ever-changing sea. This place is a waahi tapu—a sacred site, holy ground, and one can feel the spirit beneath one’s feet.

My route varies with the time of day and the flight of the moon. If the tide is in, I will run over the hills and along dusty tracks between riotous barberry hedges. If the tide is out, I will carry on down to the shore and run through the black, oily mud of the mangroves and out along the tidal flats—scuttling crabs and tiny fish darting from my footfall.

On any given day I turn around a rocky headland and a hundred huge black swans will rise in flight around me with a great thrumming of pinions; or a hundred matuku moana will be standing like silent, prehistoric, blue-grey sentinels in the shallows. Sometimes the ground will shake and fifty large, black and white cows will stream over the hills following me on my course. I will stop and sing for them and they will gather around, a huffing yet attentive, wide-eyed throng who will lick me with their great, rough and slobbering tongues before lowing a farewell as I carry on my run.

Twenty thousand years ago this place was an inferno of flying molten rock. Two volcanoes dominate the landscape—Otuataua Maunga and Puketaapapa tanga a Hape: holy mountains as Sinai or Kailash. But do not imagine soaring Javanese peaks emerging from the mist with caldera of boiling rock and an attendant plume of theophanic smoke. From foothill to summit —though to actually stand on the summit would be impiety—would take rather less than a minute to run, and in the craters—placid cattle graze and the occasional hare may dance his special, lunatic devotion to the moon.

Time and tide, they say, wait for no man. One day, misjudging the dance of the moon and sea, I found myself engulfed by a fast-incoming tide. By the time I was wading knee-deep through seawater I was cursing myself regarding bad timing and the inadequacy of slow wading in a training programme which called for, if not fast running, at least running of some sort. But my grumbling turned to delight as hundreds of fish, each one a scintillant flash of the brightest silver began to dance around me—breaking the surface in a progression of ebullient quicksilver.

In instants such as this, delight renders time an irrelevance.

And so the Earth revolves, invisible flakes break from hard volcanic rock, the feather from the tail of a cock pheasant—barred, beautiful, sepia and black—blows across the grass to be caught against a dry-stone wall.

Time passes. Not long till the start of the race now.