“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”1The Fleeting Nature of the “Present”
Gerhart B. Ladner, in his work The Idea of Reform, examines in some detail St. Augustine’s theory of time. He writes,
“How can we experience time if it is continuously passing? This is the problem of time in Augustine’s Confessions. The past of a thing no longer exists even in the immediately following instant and the future does not yet exist. The present, indivisible as it is—otherwise it would be part past and part future—is so closely ‘crowded in’ by past and future that Augustine exclaims almost in despair: praesens autem non hebet spatium [‘the present hath no space’]. If then we nevertheless experience and measure time, we can do so only by means of memory and expectation which are in our soul: memory of the past and expectation of the future.”2
Augustine lamented the fleeting nature of the present, regretting that there was no handle by which to hold it. As soon as we welcome the future into the present it slips into the past. Augustine was able to observe this even in a time when technology had not yet made it possible to measure the speed of light or to break things down digitally so as to be able to “see” the passing of time in terms of microseconds (a microsecond is one millionth of a second; it takes 300 to 400 microseconds for an eye to blink!).3 Technology has allowed us to see that what can properly be referred to as “the present” is actually so short-lived as to be practically non-existent. Apparently, the smallest scientifically meaningful measurement of time is the amount of time it takes light to travel a Planck length. A Planck length is 1.61619926 × 10-35 meters
I don’t know what that means other than that it is some fractional measurement of time, and that it is shorter than something called a yoctosecond which is one septillionth of a second.4 Augustine said,
“If any portion of time be conceived which cannot now be divided into even the minutest particles of moments, this only is that which may be called present.”5So, in our times, technology has reduced what can be considered “the present” into Planck lengths (notated lp) and yoctoseconds.
The Speed of Time
According to Einstein, “light, traveling in a vacuum, is the universal speed limit.”6 One might conjecture that the only thing faster than light is time itself (which seems like a nonsense statement until you Google it and read the discussion threads). Augustine lived in Hippo Regius (modern Annaba in Algeria), considered to be a major Roman city. Though life in the city would have been more hectic than life in the country, Augustine’s life would have been much less hectic and hurried than our lives today for one simple reason at least: the pace and flow of information and travel. Our ability today to send and receive information, along with our travel capabilities, allows us to live at a pace that would dumbfound Augustine. It also creates an almost insurmountable obstacle for the person who wants to live a contemplative, reflective, thoughtful life because our busy-ness and ability to be productive masks the reality that time is passing by at an alarming rate. This, in turn, has the tendency to prohibit us from being emotionally and spiritually available. If asked whether we consider time to be important, our resounding answer would be, “Yes!” but that’s because we see time as something we need more of so that we can get more things done. However, there are some things that force us to slow down and consider time in a different way—the death of a friend or loved one, our children growing up and moving away, an event giving us a glimpse of our own mortality. In those moments we realize that while we were busy making other plans, time was relentlessly flowing past at a pace faster than the speed of light, robbing us of our most precious opportunities in this life to connect with people and with God.
So, while technology has allowed us to measure the passing of time in astonishingly fractional increments, it has also so increased our capacity for production and busyness so that it detracts from our using time as an ally in an effort to be emotionally and spiritually available. Instead of looking at the rapid passing of time and allowing it to motivate us to greater relational and spiritual depths, we instead look at the passing of time and say, “I need to get more done.”
At one point in his Confessions Augustine said that he measured the present by taking note of the impressions left upon him by people, things, and events that have already slipped into the past.
In you, my mind, do I measure the times. . . . I measure as present the very impression (affectionem) which the things which pass away have had on you and which remains after they have passed away; when I measure the times, I measure that impression and not the things which have passed away . . .7 This is a profound observation, for not only have things, events, and people left their impressions upon us, even though they have long since passed away (or are in the process of passing), but we must also realize that we too are making impressions as we pass.
Ironically, though it would seem that the present is all but non-existent, in God, the One Who lives outside of time, the present is all there is. (Re-read that sentence and let it sink in. I’ll wait…) At this juncture, I actually have two choices. I can follow my own instincts, and the instincts of my American culture and try to squeeze all of the productive juice out of every yoctosecond, or I can connect with God and align myself with His time. What does this say about how we should live? How we should live our lives in God?
Time is passing by. Technology has allowed me to fill my time with efforts at productivity and to travel. Because technology has increased production and travel efficiency, I do not experience “the present” like I might if I were not trying to pack so much productivity into my life.
If the present is so short that it immediately becomes the past, and if in fact we are rushing headlong into the future, what does this say about how we should live?
Augustine’s perspective that time is best measured by measuring the impressions that things, events, and people have left on us, all of which have now slipped into the past, what does this say to us about how we should live? What kind of impression will we leave?
1 Usually attributed to John Lennon in his song, “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”; “Similar expressions were used by others prior to Lennon’s use of this line, and have been attributed to Betty Talmadge, Thomas La Mance, Margaret Millar, William Gaddis, and Lily Tomlin, but the earliest known published occurrence was the 1957 attribution of “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans” to Allen Saunders in Reader’s Digest, according to The Quote Verifier : Who Said What, Where, and When (2006) by Ralph Keyes http://en.wikiquote. org/wiki/John_Lennon
2 Garhart B. Ladner, The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959), 203. The Latin phrase trans. is J. G. Pilkington’s as found in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 169.
3 http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/olympic-timing.htm; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/01/technology/impatient-web-users-flee-slow-loading-sites.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&; http://olympics.time.com/2012/07/27/technologys-touch-how-a-photo-finish-in-the-olympic-pool-gets-resolved/.
5Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff , Confessions, trans. Pilkington, (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 169.
6 Jamie Conliffe, “Did Scientists Really Just Break the Speed of Light?” (Gizmodo, May 7, 2012) http://gizmodo.com/5908206/did-scientists-really-just-break-the-speed-of-light
7 Compare Ladner’s quote of M. Skutella’s translation of Book 11, Ch. 26:36 (Ibid., 204) with that of J. G. Pilkington’s as found in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 173.