Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's brooding

By James Carroll | December 31, 2007

WHAT IS MORE worthless than the ripped off page of a calendar? Indeed, what is more brusque than that act of ripping off? On New Year's, you start over with a new calendar, and the fresh pages, each with its day or week or month, are innocent and beautiful. You move through time by sullying each page, tearing and discarding it. In the black-and-white cinema of your mind, a locomotive forever chugs along its tracks, while in the foreground, the pages of the calendar flip by, into the wind. Is that all there is to time?

The trouble with the image of time as a calendar with pages to be torn and tossed is that it can reinforce your general feeling of disconnectedness, as if the events of life cohere no more than one page does to another. All that stands between you and the cinder pile of history are a pair of staples. You, too, are a mere page on the calendar, and the dull roaring in the back of your head is that locomotive, bombing into the unknown, with no relationship to what it leaves behind. No relationship, finally, even to you - unless, of course, you are the train. Past, present, and future are nothing but a set of unchosen tracks along which you move, picking up speed - leaving behind the litter of what just happened. This is time experienced as mere chronology, one damn thing after another, and then it's over.

The benign brooding of New Year's suggests another way to think of time. The Greeks distinguished between chronos and kairos, one a railroad track spanning the surface of life, and the other, say, a spiral winding down into the depths of wisdom and true knowledge. There is chronological time, with its detritus [debris or discarded material] , and there is contemplative time, where nothing is lost. The first depends on the skill of forgetfulness, while the second nurtures a feeling for the past through memory. To the first, the future is the next surprise; to the second, the future is familiar, because the past and the present prepare it.

The word contemplation has a Latin root, suggesting "time with," as if in contrast to chronology as time alone. But the "with" here is not merely social. Contemplative time is time in which connectedness is perceived as essential. There is no fully human knowing unless it is knowing "with"; knowing, especially, how one experience links with another. The connection is what matters, and in contemplative time, the connection is what shows itself. As the scientists tell you, there is homo sapiens, the creature who knows; and there is homo sapiens sapiens, the creature who knows that it knows. Who knows "with." And "knowing with," of course, comes to us from Latin as conscience.

That double knowing is the realm of meaning. It is what you live for, and why you aim to move from mere chronology to contemplation. The first is episodic, with events following each other as if randomly. The second is dramatic, with events joined not by mere sequence, but by causation. In contemplation, where you perceive the "with" in time, you see that the past, present, and future flow into one another not accidentally, but as choice flows into consequence, which flows into a new choice, and an ever-larger consequence. In the spiraled knowing of contemplation, you see that choice is the seat of connectedness, which makes time the realm of morality, as well as meaning. You grasp your part in the simple wholeness of all that is, a part defined by freedom and responsibility. The episodes of your life, therefore, are not discrete pages to be discarded one by one, but form a moral unity, the purpose of which is to be understood. Every day you have lived has been preparing you for this day - the fullness of time. Kairos.

The timespan of Earth stretches back across thousands of millions of years, with the cosmos stretching farther back through years without number. Your lifespan is less than a blink of the eye of time, and so, for that matter, is all of humanity's. The law of chronology suggests that, on such a scale, what you make of the turning calendar means nothing. But the law of contemplation is otherwise. Today, the previous span of cosmic incomprehensibility adds up in the sum of your thoughtfulness. New Year's is the joyful celebration of all that has ever transpired anywhere, aware of itself now in you.

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