"Where Has Time Brought Us?”
Berry Street Conference Lecture, 1973
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly
May 28, 1973
"I’ve always been keenly aware of the passing of time.”
—Simone de Beauvoir
"Nature,” said an 18th century Scotch geologist named Hutton, "lives in motion.” And motion, in the living world, is time. Persons live in time. And time passes.
That is my theme for this essay and I want to examine it from several perspectives and tell you not what you have not known before, but, rather, that which you have known all along. I justify this admission by my fervent belief that the telling of the known is very much needed by ourselves and by those to whom we minister.
Ours is a profession which deals with the effects of the passing of time. And we are not unaware of those effects on ourselves. Our profession charges us with becoming more familiar with the effects of time on those about us.
We all read Toffler’s Future Shock a few years ago and thereby became more fully aware of the acceleration of change within the modern world, our world. It comes at us with an acceleration that touches us all, but which touches older persons more sharply than younger persons; the acceleration of change is also the acceleration, as we grow older, of the passage of time. "Time does not flow at the same speed at the different stages of our life,” writes Simone de Beauvoir, "the older one grows the faster it runs.”
The child is barely aware of the passage of time; it seems an eternity until the next birthday, until Christmas comes again. Not so with us. Next Christmas is always almost here, and the next birthday is upon us, and even if we should choose Biennial Assemblies the next one would seem to be always approaching.
The French playwright, Ionesco, has written:
I remember the quarter of an hour’s break at my primary school. A quarter of an hour! It was long and it was full. There was time to think of a game, play it right through and begin another….But next year was nothing but a word; and even if I did think that this next year might come, it seemed to me so far off that it was not worth troubling about; it was long as all eternity before next year would come round, which was much the same as not coming round at all.
The acceleration of change has increased with the modern age, and Toffler tries to explain its implications to us; and other writers seek to explore some of the ambiguities of the concept of time. Loren Eiseley has written:
…a growing child strives to master the institutional customs of a society which, compared with the pace of past history, compresses centuries of change into his lifetime. I myself, like others of my generation, was born in an age which has already perished. At my death, I will look my last upon a nation which…will seem increasingly alien and remote. It will be as though I peered upon my youth through misty centuries. I will not be merely old; I will be a genuine fossil embedded in on-rushing man-made time before my actual death.
Shakespeare wrote of the "dark backward and abysm of time” and Eiseley is haunted by that image and by the worlds that have vanished from our sight and even from our awareness. He is drawn to archeology and to anthropology and to those sciences that show us a shadow at least of what is past. In one of his essays he writes of his discovery in a deep narrow slit of Midwest soil of a skull embedded in the solid sandstone deep beneath the surface. It was the skull of a pre-human being. Deep down in the slit he observed:
The skull lay tilted in such a manner that it stared, sightless, up at me as though I, too, were already caught a few feet above him in the strata and, in my turn, were staring upward at that strip of sky which the ages were carrying farther away from me….The creature had never lived to see a man, and I, what was it I was never going to see?
Astronomy tells us of the abysm of space. The headlines recently revealed, "MEN REPORT SEEING EDGE OF THE UNIVERSE.” And theNew York Times writer, Walter Sullivan, tells us that astronomers and physicists have come to this conclusion because a newly discovered quasar was not more distant than it was. The implication of that fact was, somehow, that the universe is, as Einstein maintained, finite. Beyond it nothing exists; not even space, perhaps, because the concept holds that at that distance space turns back upon itself. I don’t know why that means and I cannot grasp the concept of space turning back upon itself. Does this mean that there is a place where time, too, turns back upon itself?
This matter of what time is has puzzled the scientists and the philosophers, and, of course, the poets over the years. Augustine once made some observations on time past and time present and time future:
If we conceive of some point in time which cannot be divided into even the minutest parts or movements, that is the only point that can be called the present; and that point flees with such lightning speed from being future to being past that it has no extent or duration at all.
Only time past and time future can be called long or short, then only they have duration, but they don’t even exist. What, then, is time? Augustine asks himself. "If no one asks me,” he wrote, "I know; if I want to explain it, I do not know.”
And he was bothered by the problem of measuring time:
We measure time in its passing. But if you ask me how I know this, my answer is that I know it because we measure time, and we cannot measure that which does not exist, and the past and the future do not exist. But how do we measure time present since it has no dimension?...Where does time come from, and by what way does it pass, and where does it go to while we are measuring it? Where is it from?—obviously from the future. By what way does it pass?—by the present. Where does it go?—into the past. In other words, it passes from that which does not exist, by way of that which lacks extension, into that which is no longer.
That is Augustine on time. I hope it has proven helpful. There are two lines of verse that say it differently. This verse has a title, "The Paradox of Time,” and an author, Henry Dobson. These are the lines:
Time goes, you say? Ah no!
Alas, Time stays, we go.
Eiseley, remembering seeing the fiery tail of Halley’s comet in his boyhood, wonders now how brightly it may have shown over Hastings in 1066 and further backward in the abysm of time at other appearances, in the ice ages, for instance, and high above the primordial ooze; and remembering it in his boyhood, he wishes for its return so he might "restore the innocence of 1910,” when he stood upon a Nebraska prairie with his father and saw the comet above him. He knows, of course, that the innocence of boyhood cannot be regained, that he cannot return, but the reappearance of the comet, due in 1985, will, in an inner sense, satisfy some of that eternal longing to have time stand still, that inner need for stability and continuity in a world that alters itself as we walk upon it.
"Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means”
"We live by losing what we are…”
Much of our literature is the literature of reminiscence, the intermittent memories of childhood, of a past never wholly forgotten, never precisely remembered. We treasure those memories, even the unkind ones, and in silence or with words we try ever to recapture them. That we cannot do so is a truism we knew when we began, but there is comfort in the attempt, and some small amount of wonder that in that distant place, seen through what Roger Kahn calls the "watery eye of memory,” and what the poet, Keats, called "the pebbled shore of memory,” there is a piece of ourselves.
We are creatures whose memories extend back over time and we do, with nostalgia, remember times past and wish for their return; or remember times past and be relieved to know that they will not come again. Dylan Thomas spoke with this nostalgia in his "Poem in October,” written when he was thirty. He spoke of his youth and of how he saw
So clearly a child’s
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
And the legends of green chapels
And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks an his heart
moved in mine.
We all remember the fears and the delights of our childhood and marvel that they seem so far away. I remember a long drive over the left fielder’s head and I remember my pride at that accomplishment being tempered by the theft of my new baseball bat. I remember so clearly the first girl I kissed, or, at least, the first girl who kissed me back. How could those events be so long gone? Was it really that long ago? Have I really changed that much? But as we remember distant days we all realize that we have changed immeasurably, that time has played some games with us.
In Dan Wakefield’s novel of reminiscence, Going All the Way, a young man tries to imagine his mother as a young woman, and wondered if somehow she felt like a different person now than she did when she was young, if she was different on the inside as well as on the outside.
"Do you still feel the same now as you did then,” he asked, "when you were young?”
"How do you mean?”
"I mean, do you feel like it’s still the same you, right now, that you are the same person as when you were a young girl?”
"…Yes,” she said….”You mean, am I the same inside, only older on the outside?”
"Yes, that’s it.”
"Yes, that’s why it’s so hard to look in a mirror. You are looking at yourself, but you don’t recognize yourself. It’s a shock. The person you see is older, and heavier, and has wrinkles. But you don’t feel that way inside, and it’s hard to believe that’s how you really look now, how other people see you.”
"It must be very hard.”
The passage of time affects us all, and, of course, we see it in different ways and in different ways at different ages. I have my personal troubles in assaying the whole truth of the fact that I am 41. I don’t fully sense that this has happened, although I think I have few illusions about the reality of time’s passing.
I have a certain nostalgia for my childhood, but I don’t want to return there. Robert Frost, in "Birches,” remembered a boy swinging birches to the ground and told us, "And so I dream of going back to be.” I see my childhood with a difference and never dream of going back to be. It was a secure childhood, surrounded by the love of parents and grandparents, secure in the suburban town, in middle-class living, in being Protestant.
The woods near my boyhood home seem so much smaller now, and those boulders my brother and I used to climb upon, each helping the other up and down, are much diminished now. Perhaps the rain has washed the stone away as it wore down the once-pointed peaks of the White Mountains. But it is hard to follow the thread of self back to the boy who used to climb those boulders. It was I surely, but it was so different an "I” that I cannot recognize the person anymore. That boy who was I is more like a faded memory of some other person.
Unrecognizable as we are amid our pasts, we like to remember the idyllic sort of past that though it never existed comforts us with its presence. I speak of nostalgia, that most appealing and most profitable enterprise which reminds us that Tom Mix’s horse had a name, and that second-rate movie actresses appeared regularly in second-rate movies. A massive industry has been created trying to help us remember the trivia of our earlier days.
There is security within the trivia, a sense of completeness within always incomplete days. In an existence in which "time revolves like a continuous wheel,” we find in the nostalgic remembrance of things past, even the trivia of the past, a sameness and a certitude that we find nowhere else, for "the past always seems simpler when its wars are done.”
And the present, as Robert Frost told us
Is too much for the senses,
Too crowded, too confusing—
To present to imagine.
So we indulge ourselves in the nostalgic remembering of yesterday. What was the very appropriate theme song of "Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons”? And who was the composer? Name the members of "Our Gang.” In the recent movie, "Save the Tiger,” Jack Lemmon plays Harry, the Los Angeles businessman clawing it to survive; and finding a sort of fervid peace in remembering how it used to be in the 1940s, the old tunes, the old Brooklyn Dodgers, the old movies. There were giants in the earth in those days.
Some of those giants were the ballplayers helped into immortality by Roger Kahn’s lovely book, The Boys of Summer; and we can read it and remember, as Heywood Hale Broun said in a review, that it tells of a world "where baseball teams were the center of a love beyond the reach of intellect.” The past we cannot quite let go and there are times in which it almost seems more important than the present. Finding ourselves in the past, we can imagine an almost boundless future. Living in the present, the future seems limited. So the nostalgia business thrives as it tells us of "the happy highways where I went / And cannot come again” (Housman).
Out in my part of the country we have the frenetic and sometimes powerful remnants of a nativist nationalism and primitivism that bestirs itself these days to do battle against the evils of sex education, abortion, contraception, and other evils that descend upon us from abroad and from the coasts. We once called them the "radical right,” but that oversimplified the variegated make-up of those persons who are at odds with the broad and general thrust of contemporary society. Becalmed, many of them, in the horse latitudes of small towns in the Midwest, they see changes being made in society which are almost completely beyond their control or even influence. In my part of the world the small towns are mostly declining in population; they are certainly declining in influence. The brightest and the best of their residents in these past twenty years have moved away. Wary ever of the future which beckons to them nightly from their television screens, those who remain are concerned with the alterations that have entered their lives, with the appearance of blacks upon the national scene, with the omnipresent youth culture and its noise, and they wish, so fervently, that there might be a return to those older days when everything was in its place, when everything was not so threatening. "Make me a child, again, just for tonight…” is their sometime mood. Their nostalgia is not a parlor game; they remember the simpler virtues of small town life and seem to remember it as an uncluttered, semi-utopian existence, and they even hope it could be that way again if only…if only….
Except that they know that the old world will not return again; but some of them are ready to fight the excesses of contemporary society, the over-sophisticated and cosmopolitan and irreverent and skeptical world. They are fighting modernity, what Daniel Bell once called "that complex of attitudes that might be defined most simply as the belief in rational assessment, rather than established custom, for the evaluation of social change.” These people are the dispossessed of American life, fighting a desperate rear-guard action on behalf of fundamentalism, nationalism, and a simple good and evil moralism.
They remember the past because they cannot understand or accept the present and because the future holds no future for them. Their small town will probably continue to diminish in size and in economic viability; the children will continue to move to the city and its suburbs, and the nightly news will continue to bring them news, not of a peaceful past, but of the present and its crises. At times, as in their battle against the women’s movement or against sex education in the schools, they have high hopes of some sort of major social victory after which the country will turn around and the old virtues will be crowned anew. The hope for some sort of leader behind whom they can fall into step, someone who, as Murray Kempton once wrote, can be a Charles Atlas sort of person, "saying to us again that we need only mail the letter and back will come the muscles which we will use to throw the bully off the beach and have the girl turn to us with eyes shining with the sudden knowledge of how special we are.” But usually it isn’t like that at all. If the past cannot return to us, neither, it seems, can we return to the past.
Age takes hold of us by surprise.
Time held me green and dying…
Buddha noted long ago that each of us is the future dwelling place of old age. That is readily understood in the abstract and it is always clear that the passage of time means that we get older. At some point, however, we begin to absorb the meaning of that reality into our lives and we become conscious of our own aging and of the allied reality of the brevity of life.
Ionesco told us in his old age that he had reached that point in time when an hour was worth only a few minutes, when the quarters of an hour no longer had any meaning. Time in its passing becomes compressed. Twenty years into the future seems briefer than twenty years looking into the past. As I look forward twenty years, it appears as if I were almost there, almost to the age of 61; whereas, looking backwards twenty years takes me back to a different person, a different age, and it seems an infinity of time since I was 21. I cannot well remember that year. But I can almost remember the future, the twenty years ahead, and the future seems to rush upon me before I can quite get prepared for it. Now, for the first time in my life, I sense that time is short, that it is slipping away. "The future,” Tennessee Williams once wrote, "is called ‘perhaps,’ which is the only thing to call the future.”
To think about and imagine the future is to think about and imagine the aging process. To think about the future at the beginning of what we have learned to call the middle years is to confront one’s middle years and their implications, the hungers and frustrations and disappointments and uncertainties. For so many persons, men especially, these are difficult years.
These are the years, as Martha Lear has written:
…when men find the head is balding, the sexual vigor diminishing, the stress is unending, the children are leaving, the parents are dying, the job horizons are narrowing, their friends are having their first heart attacks. The past floats by in a fog of hopes not realized, opportunities not grasped, women not bedded, potentials not fulfilled, and the future is a confrontation with one’s own mortality.
One can over-dramatize this matter of aging and imagine it to be a continual tale of woe. It rarely is. And one can pronounce all sorts of exciting truisms such as "aging is a relative thing.” It is obvious that the fact of aging does touch us differently. F. Scott Fitzgerald once spoke of a friend as being "a faded but still lovely woman of 27.” And on another occasion he announced, "God, how I miss my youth.” He was twenty.
But most of us and most of those to whom we minister have had to confront "the first cold draft of age.” We and they have had to confront it and to somehow make its realities an accepted part of ourselves. Like Dylan Thomas’ poem, we can advise others or counsel ourselves to "rage, rage against the dying of the light,” or with Ken Kesey we can "damn this world that won’t stand still for us.” But all that doesn’t help very much.
That time passes and age creeps upon us slowly is not something of which we live entirely unaware. Long ago we learned something about growing old and long ago, as children, we confronted the implications of time and of aging as we struggled to come to terms with the reality of our own mortality.
Freya Stark remembers her first meeting with the image of death and tells us of it in an essay in her book, Perseus in the Wind. She remembers herself as four years old and being put to bed by a nurse in her grandmother’s house. The child asked if her mother would live forever.
"No,” said nurse, "not forever, but for a long time.”
"How long?” I asked. "A thousand years?”
"No,” said nurse. "Not a thousand years.”
The finality of time was borne in upon me. Hours afterwards my parents, coming up to bed, found me half asleep but still sobbing at the top of the stairs, where I had crept a little nearer to those dear ones who in a thousand years would be dead.
The only certainty, we have learned, as we have witnessed the passing of time and its meaning, is mortality. We are always in the process of coming to terms with it. And if there can be no real happiness until one’s own mortality has been assimilated, neither, I think, can there be a safe happiness until one’s own aging can be accepted.
A young poet, Greg Kuzma, writes:
I imagine a land in which the wind
blows no change; the cliffs are padded…
And that is the land we imagine from time to time; but the land in which we live is not so. Change is the order of the day and within our individual lives change comes to us wearing the mask of time. We can look for ways to pad this reality; we can fight it and join the cult of youth eternal, so popular in this age. We can participate in the fads of dress and culture that we hope will show us to be youthful in spirit if not in years. And by so doing we can buy time, perhaps, or we can hope we are doing so. Perhaps, some of us hope, we can overlook the passage of time by insisting upon newness, novelty, the latest fashions, tastes, beliefs, causes. By appearing out there in the front of the bandwagon we can show the world, if not ourselves, that we are as young as the young, as chic as the chic, as avant-garde as the avant-garde, and that time has somehow passed us by, that somehow we have learned how to buy time and remain eternally young. Lance Loud, one of the members of the "American Family,” told us that he wished he could be a Peter Pan, someone, Anne Roiphe commented, who could be "the eternal child who could play forever, love no one and give nothing, commit nothing and never age into the regrets of all of us who dare the terrors of love, work, and children.
But time is never for sale and there is no greater disillusionment than the disillusionment that comes after we have sought to assuage the demands of time by pretending that we can hide from them by a retreat into the youth culture and its fads. Surely we will sometimes regret where time has brought us and we may find a particular poignancy in the reality of our passing years. "I grow old…I grow old” moaned Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, for the world was becoming too difficult for him:
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
Wisdom in these matters lies in the awareness that there is no way to detour around our aging. Life is "the perpetual perishing of occasions” and the present moments of our lives will not stay. We may have trouble with this sometimes, and those to whom we minister might have trouble with this, but the winds that blow do blow changes.
Goethe has his Faust make this bargain with Mephistopheles: "What is the price of my soul? Just this: if ever I say to the passing moment, "O stay a while, thou art so fair!” then I am yours.”
The implications are clear enough. To face time and its passing is a way to possess our own souls; and to help others do that is to fulfill our roles as ministers.
Time hath…a wallet at his back wherein he
puts alms for oblivion.
We minister to persons much like ourselves, frail and unsure of themselves at times, conscious often of their mortality, in need always of a sense of security, a sense of being at home in the world, and aware often of the passage of time and its effects upon them.
In our counseling we sit with persons whose lives are oftentimes undergoing changes of major proportions, changes which involve death and dying, marriage and divorce and each is somehow related to the passage of time in their lives. Thus the poignancy and significance of an awareness of time.
Relationships change with the passing of time; if new lives are created, so are old relationships broken. If time and its passing bring us to new joys, so does it destroy old ones. We counsel, with our hesitant wisdom and personal doubts, with people undergoing massive personal changes in their lives and we hear their oftentimes plaintive cries of needing "more time,” or of not having had enough time, or of wanting, too late, to begin again, or of fearing the future, or of sensing, as a particular crisis at a particular age, that time has overtaken them. It is sad to have the feeling that one has run out of time.
Ours is a precarious and a precious profession and we must struggle always to find new ways to help our people live in a world that changes, and which offers only a modicum of security. Sidney Hook spoke to our condition in these words:
There is a point at which every system will fail us. There is a moment when friendship falters, when neither loyalty, love, or faith is strong enough to carry the weight of our expectations. It matters little whether the change is in us or in others. Whatever our virtue, it will someday be found wanting. Whatever our strength, it will someday be surpassed. Nor need this be reason for repining. For it is an integral aspect of the condition of things on which the condition of man depends. To the extent that wisdom depends upon habits of reasonable expectations, we must eschew the unlimited demands we make upon the world, and ourselves, which presupposes that time can stand still or be reversed, that love is eternal, that there are no losers in conflict, or that all problems are necessarily soluble.
Each of us, then struggles in his own ministry to assuage the bruises caused by the flow of time. I have made a habit of reviewing the question of time’s passing in several birthday sermons, the first given when I turned 30, called "Time’s Winged Chariots,” a title taken from Andrew Marvell’s poem, "To His Coy Mistress,” in which the poet, becoming conscious of the future rushing toward him, appeals for love.
In recent years several members of my congregation have worked with me in creating a couple of church services of poetry and prose and music on themes touching upon the passage of time. One, called "To See Is a Work of Love,” dealt with memories of childhood; another, called, "What Is It to Grow Old?” dealt with aging.
Last year at a memorial service for a woman over 90, I tried to place a human life in the perspective of time and reminded the few persons in the chapel that when she was born Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States, that Queen Victoria was ruling England and the Empire and would continue to do so for about 25 years, that Walt Whitman was still writing, that Emerson was alive in Concord, that Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman had not yet been born; that, indeed, she was born into a different world and that she lived long years.
At the end of each calendar year we celebrate the lives of persons of renown who have died during the year just behind us. In January of this year we spoke of Jackie Robinson and J. Edgar Hoover, of Adam Clayton Powell and the Duke of Windsor, or Paul Goodman and Saul Alinsky, of Harlow Shapley and Harry Truman and Mark Van Doren, and Maurice Chevalier and Edgar Snow and, yes, Charles Atlas. They all died in 1972; they had lived in time and had been overcome by the passage of time. The human community had been touched by their lives and in remembering them we brought ourselves closer to our own mortality, a necessary awareness for each of us.
And in celebrating the changes that time brings to our people, we deal with ourselves, with our own changes and our own aging and our own mortality and our own memories. And in seeing them in the perspective of the passage of time, we come closer to seeing that there can be no security for us outside of the awareness that, as Roger Kahn said of an aging shortstop, no matter how high we leaped in the past, we are always earthbound.
Time present and time past are both perhaps
present in time future....
—T. S. Eliot
The concept of time with which we have been dealing is a western concept. The western metaphor has time flowing like a river, from the future, by us, into the past. And like Herclitus we have accepted the thesis that we cannot ever step into the same river twice.
According to the metaphor there is barely any present. Augustine’s present with no dimension may be the way we view time; but it is assuredly not the way we live it.
The western metaphor breaks down in practice, if not in logic and philosophy. Perhaps, in logic, there is no present; but as we live we are aware of a constantly enlarging present, a present that includes, through memory and imagination, both the past and the future.
Says T. S. Eliot:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future.
And time future contained in time past.
We are never fully aware of any human experience while it is happening. It builds its meaning by being relived, reviewed, reorganized in the mind and in the heart and in the memory. Childhood takes on new meanings at 40; the pastness of the past is forgotten, set aside, hidden from us; but the presentness of the past survives to create the present which, despite Augustine and logic, has dimension for us. For our present includes all that we have been and all that, in memory and in imagination, we can see ourselves becoming.
Time might seem less an enemy when we enlarge the present and by an act of will and imagination give it dimension. This will mean, surely, that the present will include the insecurities of the future, as it does in any case whatever the metaphor we use to describe it. Bobby Burns, on turning over the mouse’s nest in the field apologized, but saw somehow that the mouse was blessed compared with the poet, for
The present only toucheth thee
But oh! I backward cast me e’e
On prospects drear!
And forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess and fear!
To abandon, in part, the western metaphor, does not mean that we become unaware of "time’s winged chariots.” But it will mean that by integrating our past into our present, through an awareness of history and of growth and of aging, and of change, and of process itself, we enlarge the confines of the present. In their totalities, present events drag the past towards them, and take over the future.
In a sense, with this understanding of an enlarged and vibrant present, time does turn back upon itself and we and our days find greater dimensions and we and our profession find new ways to minister to those persons, like ourselves, who live in time.
 Simone de Beauvoir, The Coming of Age (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972).
 Quoted in Beauvoir, p. 373f.
 Loren Eiseley, The Invisible Pyramid (New York: Scribners, 1970), p. 22.
 Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (New York: Vintage, 1958), p. 5.
 Dan Wakefield, Going All the Way (New York: Dell, 1970), p. 185f.
 Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer (New York: Signet, 1973), p. 109.
 Quoted in The Radical Right, edited by Daniel Bell (New York: Doubleday, 1963), p. 12.
 Ibid., p. 10.
 Martha Lear, New York Times Magazine, January 28, 1973.
 Freya Stark, Perseus in the Wind (Boston: Beacon Press, 1956), p. 47f.
 Greg Kuzma, "The Future,” in Prairie Schooner (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, Winter 1972-73).
 Anne Roiphe, "Things Are Keen But Could Be Keener,” New York Times Magazine, February 18, 1973.
 Sidney Hook, "A Philosopher’s View,” in Man’s Quest for Security (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), p. 13f.