To Infinity and Beyond – our time perception

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Michail Bulgakov, in his fantastic novel The Master and Margarita, depicts a visit of the devil in Moscow during the Stalin regime. He meets two atheist intellectuals and they immerse in a conversation on divine providence and random events. The devil is shocked to learn that the two men do not believe in God, and in order to try and convince them in the existence of a divine entity he argues that human beings live for such a short time, they are unable to plan anything for “a ridiculously short period – well, say, a thousand years”. The two men protest, of course man is not immortal, but that doesn’t mean he can’t plan ahead. The devil is quick to correct them: “Yes, man is mortal, but that would be only half the trouble. The worst of it is that he’s sometimes unexpectedly mortal – there’s the trick!” (pp. 13-15).  

In his brilliant humoristic way Bulgakov is illustrating how the human perception of time can sometimes be inconsistent and confused. Essentially it is composed of two elements: the first is a general encompassing understanding that one doesn’t live forever, that man is immortal, and that unexpected, uncontrolled events may alter his or her life. The other is a set of plans and decisions that are completely separate from the first elements, with man planning and preparing for the near and far future. In spite of our understanding that our time is not only limited but could easily be swayed unexpectedly, most of us have plans for days, months, years – perhaps even decades.  

Sometimes there is a fundamental difference in time perception between religious and secular people. Religious people, in particular those believing in monotheistic religions, have a wider, yet more clearly defined, sense of time. The image of the creation of the world is concrete and tangible, encouraging the believer to relate to it. The many works of art depicting it illustrate how vivid this belief was in previous generations. The end of the world is also clearly portrayed, each one according to his faith, but there is always ‘and end of time‘, an eschatology. The images are different from one religion to the other, but they all share the notion that time is going to terminate some day. Secular people, on the other hand, have a less sharply focused notion of time. Most of them find the various scientific theories on the creation of the planet vague and unclear, and as for time itself – rationally it is perceived as infinite, but on an emotional level it is almost abstract. Buzz Lightyear, a much-loved toy character in the children’s movie Toy Story, cries “to infinity and beyond”, thus illustrating how the concept of ‘infinity’ is almost meaningless, if one could jump beyond it. And as for the focus on short-term period, it is often extremely intensive, and the fear that an hour, and afternoon, a day, a week will pass transforms into panic. Dr. Seuss said “how did it get so late so soon?”  

Living in Israel, the question of time perception becomes less theoretical. Almost every aspect of Israeli life raises the issue of time. For instance, looking at the potential Iranian nuclear bomb, what would be the pertinent time span? Some people look at the long history of Jewish survival is spite of endless persecutions, deducing that contemporary Iran is yet another misfortune Jews will manage to overcome. Holocaust survivors and their families often argue that when facing a danger of annihilation, ever second counts! Military men say that the only relevant period has nothing to do with our ‘inner clock’ but it the objective counting of days and weeks that is would take to actually compose the bomb – and that, too, is a matter of controversy. And what does Benjamin Netanyahu think? Which image of time does he have in mind? His speech at the general assembly of the UN in 2012 began with “King David reigned over the Jewish state in our eternal capital, Jerusalem”; then he juxtaposed “the forces of modernity” with the dark “medieval forces”; afterwards he spoke of the Holocaust saying “Those who opposed that fanaticism waited too long to act. In the end they triumphed, but at a horrific cost; and he concluded by drawing a red line on a picture of a bomb, which is really a red line on a time diagram.  

Strangely, those difference time spans coexist in the minds of many Israelis. We should, perhaps, return to the wise words of Michail Bulgakov: what must be kept in mind is not that we are mortals – this is easy to digest – but that whatever is the period of time that we relate to, be it hours or centuries, our perception is volatile, and could be altered at any moment.      

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