Thoughts & Insights

Where Time Has No Meaning

Hardly anything else determines our lives and also our attitudes towards life as much as this thing we call time. It is therefore all the more difficult to imagine that there was once a time when there was not even a name for what we refer to as time today.

Our early ancestors lived according to the transition from day to night, in the alternation of the equinoxes. They oriented themselves according to the position of the sun, moon and stars, and with the help of those heavenly bodies, they developed a feeling for the rhythm of life. They did not know anything about the thing that only began to be called time thousands of years later – and only much later did it become what we understand it to be today, as if it were the most natural thing in the world: measurable time, this thing that has become the central heartbeat of human life.

Katie Weeman’s article of her three-week experience of perfect timelessness on the Polar Star expedition in the Arctic winter at the North Pole reignited my thinking about this thing we call time. At the North Pole in winter, there is nothing that gives us any clues about what we perceive as time. The North Pole has no land – it consists of nothing but water and ice, and there, at the top of the world, all the time zones of this world merge into one, and in this case that actually means none at all. There is nothing by which human perception can determine the passing of time. There is no difference between day and night, because there is no sunrise and no sunset. It is dark all the time. Everything is always the same. An existence without structure. An extreme experience of the absence of time, which, precisely because it has nothing to do with the reality of life in our latitudes, once again leads us to the question: What exactly is time?

This chronometric reality of life is comparatively young. Even as late as the 14th Century, an hour was understood to be a period of time that was 1/12th of what lies between sunrise and sunset. An hour was therefore something that changed continuously over the course of a year and according to the different seasons. In summer, the hours were long; in winter, they were short. There was still no mathematical basis that equated one hour to another, irrespective of the time of the year during which it occurred.

The minute did not even exist in man’s understanding of time back then. It was not until the invention of mechanical clocks that the kind of time measurement that determines our lives today emerged – since these times began, in which we sometimes get upset because our train is a few minutes late, and we are afraid we might miss our connecting train for our onward journey at the next station.

Not to mention the second, which was only added another 300 years later. Since then, the extreme precision of time measurement, even down to hundredths of a second, has become a matter of course for us. This self-evident fact, along with many other scientific calculations, is one of the prerequisites for our being able to fly to the moon and also to come back to earth again. In this respect, measurable time seems to be something absolute. But Einstein already proved otherwise more than 100 years ago.

Let us leave the seemingly safe ground of our chronological understanding of measurable time for a moment and enter the somewhat less certain terrain of the subjective experience of time, which knows nothing about seconds, minutes, hours or weeks, but rather focuses on happy moments, favorable moments, intense experiences, critical situations, formative experiences – both memories and visions of the future. A realm in which time does not move in a linear fashion, as time measurement would have us believe, but rather with complete freedom, forwards and backwards, within the haven of the thinking space inside our brain – linking everything together, even merging it. A realm in which time, in the sense of a regulatory system, is suspended.

If we take it one step further, and include the universal constant of the speed of light in these considerations – that thing that separates us humans from the physical experience of the universe – then an extraordinarily creative power arises from this liberation of our thoughts from the fetters of time. Because the constant of the speed of light “keeps us in a kind of quarantine, whose borders we can overcome only with the help of the imagination,” as OUBEY once formulated it in reference to his art, the Photon Painting, as reminiscent of this border character. This is the true freedom of art: It puts the one who opens himself to it into a state of equally strange and wonderful timelessness. Who would ever think of time when listening to Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque or Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata? It is the true freedom of love. Who ever think about time when doing something they love.

Yet, we are born into a world of measured time. The minute of our birth is recorded just as bureaucratically as that of our death. Age is measured in years, not maturity of mind. Time measures everything equally. Thus, everything apparently has its order. It is hard to imagine the chaos that would befall this world if there were no clocks for a month or even a year.  In her experience report from the North Pole, Katie Weeman writes that she got the impression that time is nothing more than a “ritual with the aim of creating the illusion of regularity.”

However, she also tells us how happy she was that when her stay at the North Pole was over, she could rely on the fact that the plane that was to whisk her back home would actually take off as agreed, and also at the scheduled time.


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