We die. This truth is inevitable and certain, and although presumed distant when we are young, and even when we are not young, we all know it will happen to ourselves one day. Maybe soon. But when? And then what? What if anything might be next? Nobody knows that, so don’t look at me. Mors Certa, Hora Incerta, (death is certain, the hour uncertain) — this is a great mystery of life. We cannot know when we will die; we can only know that it will happen.
So there are anti-aging cosmetics, botox, surgery, self-care regimens to stave off the mark of age from our bodies, and late turns to religion for the security of our souls. But part of the great mystery of this prospect is that while the whenever-it-will-be end approaches, and often more quickly than we would wish, we cannot use reason or logic or any other conceptual tool in order to know what will happen to us after we die, or even to know if there is anything at all after life.
While ruminating on his own encroaching passage into the unknown, Vladimir Nabokov says at the start of Speak, Memory that while “our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” we tend to view “the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one we are heading for.” Death is a mystery in that what might lie next remains beyond human knowledge, but birth is a mystery as well. For Nabokov, and many others, life is a unidirectional line of experience between two voids, both unknown, but while the void before birth is typically thought of as a place or perhaps condition of possibility and potential, the second void is all darkness and unknowability. And in between these conceptual spaces stretches a line of conscious existence which we call time.
While we cannot know either of the two great voids as long as we are living, reflections on their mysteries have become the catalyst for great scientific, artistic, philosophical and sociological movements, and have been the foundation and reason for our most sacred beliefs. And our most ordinary. “Rest in Peace” commonly marks gravestones in Western culture; for many, entry into the second void means life still, but one of eternal sleep — welcome rest after the weary cares of living. When someone dies we say, usually in hushed voices, that they have “passed over” or “passed away.” Shh. Don’t wake them up.
Despite the depth to which our cultural ideas of what came before and what comes next have marked our lives, and impact us still, modern existence keeps us at a comfortable remove from death. We do not kill our prey, we pick it up at a store pre-wrapped; and of those who hunt, most do so for sport not subsistence. We do not handle the corpses of our own dead, that is for the hospital morgue or the “rest home,” and we do not personally stoke the cremation fires of our loved ones. But our most ancient ancestors did, or at minimim they dug a hole, and although modern society keeps death at a distance, around us still lurk ideas which come from a previous time when death was not so clean. Our present ideas of life and the afterlife, our thoughts of eternity’s constitution, and the nature of the line of time between Nabokov’s two voids remain, and thus humanity’s conceptions of time cannot be divorced from our primal knowledge and experience of death.
That is, the human understanding of time begins, if it is at all correct to speak of such things as beginnings when discussing time, with the most basic awareness that although we are born into a conscious existence, this life will end and we will die. Our knowledge of our own inescapable mortality, which can be frightening for some, helps us to create our linear perception of time’s progress. We are witness, after all, to this aspect of life’s linearity, that it has a beginning and an end, which is why we are most comfortable describing life as a linear movement from birth to death. Time is linear.
But we are witness as well to periodicity in the movements of the sun, the moon and the stars, and in the cycles of the seasons. Time is circular.
We are also witness to our own thoughts and feelings which never remain the same but are in a perpetual flux of simultaneity. Observe the thoughts in your own mind right now. They are multiple and do not persist but always change to another thought. Time is the experience of phenomenal flux.
To these briefly sketched sensory perceptions of time we must add that which we know only through the imaginings of faith, as it is not for nothing that people have been including symbolic objects in graves for over 100,000 years. We believe that when we die we will pass on to another existence very much like this one. Time is endless duration.
We believe that God who is eternal made a world of linear time and that God’s and our experiences of time are not the same. Time is the distinction between creator and creature.
We believe that there is no creator and that which we might call divinity, or the condition of eternality, lies within us, and that which we truly are was never born and will never die. Time is eternity of being.
What is time? These have all been varying routes to a definition of time, of which there are a great many more, there are as many perceptions of time as there are perceivers. The process of understanding what exactly time is, is often one of translation between our perceptions of our own ideas of time, however we come to know them, and their articulations. What we know within ourselves about time and what we can spit out about it are two very different things.
Perhaps it is because our ideas of time are deeply connected with our ideas of death, and because what might or might not come after death is our greatest mystery of living, the thing unknowable to anyone, that time itself has become for us a concept that stands outside the realm of rational or epistemological proof, and beyond our belief. Time is thus a mystery as well. Death is unknown, so time is equally elusive. What is time? You tell me.