The Relativity of Time in Time:  Adapted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future

An addition eternal question with big-picture significance asks about the nature of time. Certainly it is a “timely” question as relativity presents a newly fluid picture of time and our rush-rush world leaves us with never enough of it. The question: Just what is time?

We can’t ask the question without being confronted with contradiction. A watched pot never boils yet time flies when you are having fun. Time is the “best medicine” (Ovid) and also “all devouring, all destroying” (Jonathan Swift). Time in the ecstasy of sexual passion can feel eternal, while waiting in line can feel like an eternity. Saint Augustine’s words in his Confessions most famously express the conceptual frustration: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who does ask me, I do not know.” Luis Borges put time’s endless paradoxes more poetically: “Time is a river that carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.”

And today time is entering the human conversation in a way that might seem only to confuse the situation further. Modern physics presents a newly fluid picture of time—with relativity, time expands and contracts and gets equal billing with the three dimensions of space. Certainly time has becomes a “timely” topic as our rush-rush world leaves us with never enough of it.

Cultural Maturity’s cognitive reordering offers that we might engage time in deeper and more complete ways than was possible in the past. These changes can at first seem to make time even more difficult to grasp, but in the end they make it newly possible to understand fully. The important recognition when it comes to our day-to-day perception of time is that time is not always the same thing.

Culturally mature perspective brings together our often very different relationships to time and makes them part of a larger, at once more detailed and more integrated picture.

In the here and now, culturally mature perspective “bridges” common polar relationships with time. It links the time of “being” with the time of “doing,” the sacred time of the priest with the time of Galileo’s desire “to measure everything measurable and to make everything measurable that is not yet measurable.” We discover that time, like truth as a whole, has left and right hands. Integrative Meta-perspective helps us better use those hands in concert.

Culturally mature perspective also stretches our understanding of time out over time, helps us appreciate time’s developmental dimension. Time as experience is itself “relative in time”—a contextual relativity that we all at some level recognize. The time of the young child fascinated with the odd amblings of a caterpillar goes on forever. The time of the adult who needs to be on time and not waste time is much more linear and lockstep. And the time of life’s last years is different still, more tempered and better able to respond to circumstances. Creative Systems Theory’s creative frame offers a way to map this relativity of time in time.

Appreciating time’s relativity over the course of culture’s developmental story has direct pertinence to the critical task of rethinking progress. While I’ve used progress as a general notion, I’ve also stressed how, in the way we think about it, progress is a specifically modern concept. Our onward-and-upward image of progress requires the more goal-oriented sensibilities that arrived on culture’s stage with time’s Modern Age definition.

Time in Pre-Axial cultures is circular (or even more immediately, timeless—as in the almost psychedelic “dream time” of the Australian Aborigines). Time is measured by the repetitive turning of seasons and the enactment of ritual. In an important sense, past, present, and future exist simultaneously (ancestors are commonly seen to reside in a parallel here and now). The durational is clearly secondary to the eternal—to time as timelessness, to what we might call deep time.

Time in Early-Axis cultures begins to acquire a more overt sense of progression, though time as the timeless retaines its strong influence. We witness the advent of more formal “timepieces”—ritual observatories like Stonehenge, the stone calendar wheels of the Aztecs. Such structures marked duration, but with them, it was time’s cycles that most commanded our attention. And the mystical awe with which these structures were regarded makes clear the continued power of left-hand sensibility. Still, time as experience has distinctly evolved, becoming a spiral more than a circle. The perceived relationship of the living and the dead again provides a good lens for understanding (our perceptions of death and of time are intimately linked). Death in Early-Axis times is thought to be followed not by life in a parallel world, but by reincarnation (or something similar). We return to where we started, but now in altered form.

In Middle-Axis cultural times, time as progression and time as timelessness juxtapose more as equals. With the advent of monotheism, death no longer means returning to where we start, but going to some distinct afterlife. The world of forms—personal identity, invention, and time as something we can delineate—stands increasingly delineated, with the timeless now inhabiting a separate heavenly world. Timepieces become more precise (and less overtly sacred)—from the sundial, and the hourglass, to, in the thirteenth century, the first mechanical clocks. Time has not become totally divorced from the sacred—the impetus for the creation of mechanical clocks was the need for medieval monks to know the time for prayer (an ironic beginning for the device that would become the lord of secular time.) But time has become something we can separately consider.

Time in Late-Axis culture becomes our familiar linear time, the time of being on time, of not wasting time, the time purely of duration. It is time as division, the time of parts, each second equal and adding to the next. It is the time of classical science—measuring an object’s speed from here to there—and the time of commerce—as Francis Bacon said, “time is the measure of business as money is of wares.” (With their needs for reliable minute-to-minute, and even second-to-second accuracy, science and commerce were the primary drivers for the development of modern timepieces.) While primordial time connects, links all in the timeless, linear time separates, cleanly cleaves one moment from the next. It is secular time, but in our own ways we deify it. We organize our days around it, make it “of the essence.” Ironically, while we tend to assume that linear time represents the real meaning of time—time finally stripped of its mysticism—a person could argue equally well that its inception marks a final extraction of time from life’s equation. (In a Newtonian world, the three dimensions of space define truth, and time, like art or spirit, becomes something separate, and secondary).

We could map out a similar creatively contextual picture of time’s significance for Patterning in Space differences. For example, people with different temperaments do not experience time in exactly the same way. The time of the artist differs from that of the businessman as fundamentally as that of the child and the adult (and, as Creative Systems Theory predicts, in a related way).

What is the future of time? Certainly in times ahead we should become better able to recognize time’s elasticity of meaning. The temporal wars between the eternal and the durational should increasingly find resolution in more encompassing ways of thinking about time. We should become better able to appreciate the particular values and states of experience that accompany different relationships to time. With regard to progress, we should more and more recognize the price we pay, and will increasingly pay, for making time (with money) our secular deity.

Our various definitions of time come together in the importance of addressing questions of timeliness. Note that all Creative Systems patterning concepts are in one way or another about what makes something “right and timely.” Prior to now, culture as parent gave us one-size-fits-all rules that made the great majority of time-related determinations for us. We encounter such predetermination with common assumptions related to age. More recently we encounter it with the expectations of the nine-to-five workweek. With Cultural Maturity, our temporal options expand and come to lie increasingly in our own hands. They also come to exist in the context of a deepening appreciation for how diverse aspects of experience live in time in very different ways.