Desire Bends Time

I don’t have Christmas content per se, but this is about as close to it as I’ve come. I sent this brief reflection out to subscribers back in January—an age ago, and another world—so very few of you received it. I thought I might send it out tonight to the whole list … you know, for what it may be worth, as they say. Also, new subscribers should note that this post is not exactly characteristic, neither in its brevity or its content, of what you will ordinarily receive from The Convivial Society. Do hope this finds you all reasonably well.

We float in and out of various temporalities, or differential zones of temporal experience. We are all in time, but our experience of time shifts and morphs, even within a given day. Sometimes we are rushed. Sometimes we are pressured. Sometimes the time can’t pass fast enough. 

From the time we were children, we knew that our experience of time could shift. We knew that time would pass much more slowly during certain periods:  a long, uninteresting stretch of the school day as we awaited recess or the days leading up to a birthday or Christmas. Time on those occasions seemed to crawl. Then there were those moments of play and joy and companionship when we became unaware of the passing of time until those moments drew to a close and we wondered where the time had gone or how it had passed so quickly. 

The lesson of childhood is that the experience of time is conditioned by desire. The location in time of our object of desire warps our experience of time. In the realm of general relativity, gravity bends time. In the realm of human experience, desire bends time.

When we come within the orbit of that which we desire but it remains still in the future, time begins to slow. When the object of desire becomes present to us, when the moment is taken up by that which we love, then time appears to fly by. But it is closer to the mark to say that time will have seemed to go by quickly in retrospect, after the moment has passed.

In the moment of fulfillment—in the moment of joy, of play, of love—it is not so much that we feel time speeding by, it is that we do not feel the passing of time. What love and play have in common is that they both lift us up out of ourselves. They redirect our gaze away from our own interiority toward something beyond us.

But then as we become conscious that this moment will inevitably pass, that the time of departure draws near, then our experience of time is such that it appears to accelerate. The more aware we are of the ending, the faster time appears to pass. Again, it is a matter of desire. Although we may still be in the presence of that which we desire, its temporary quality—the looming horizon of finitude—renders the object both present but also soon-to-be-absent. While what we desire remains present to us, its loss now begins to color the experience so that our desire is once more activated, not for the object itself but for its permanence.

The desire for the as yet future presence of our object of desire slows the passing of time in our experience. The desire for the permanence of our object of desire accelerates the passing of time.

Desire bends time. 

In Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there’s a well-remembered line:  under the curse that has befallen Narnia, it is “always winter but never Christmas.” I’ve tended to think about that as a matter of it always being cold and miserable and never getting to enjoy the one thing that redeems the season. As I was preparing these comments about desire and time, it occurred to me that it might be better to interpret Lewis’s description temporally. To say that it is always winter and never Christmas is simply to say that you are always longing and never satisfied.