The Shape Of Time

I grew up in the 1960s in suburban America. 

Like the rest of our neighbors, we had a 19″ black and white TV, a phone attached to the wall, one family car, and no air conditioning. Let me put that last part into context. Daily summertime temperatures exceed 90 degrees in St. Louis. 

My childhood was fortunate compared to my parents’ childhood. As was their’s compared to the generation before them. That’s how it’s supposed to work in America. The arrow of time always progressing towards a better tomorrow.

Recently, things haven’t felt so optimistic. Discussing this with a friend, he said that he didn’t believe the arrow of time pointed towards progress. Instead, he thought time flowed in a circular pattern, endlessly repeating natural cycles.

I had never thought of time that way before, but I could see he had a point. The earth spins on its axis, creating day and night, and orbits the sun giving us the seasons. Maybe time is circular?

This got me wondering whether our conception of time matters?

I’ve concluded it does.

In linear time, we leave the past behind and focus forward. Linear time speaks of progress, acquisition, and accomplishment. Linear time emphasizes the potential of tomorrow over the circumstance of today.  

History appears to validate this view. Five hundred years ago, the typical person lived their entire life without seeing the printed word. Today, we freak out if the internet goes down for ten minutes. For argument’s sake, let’s call that progress.

A couple generations ago, most people didn’t venture more than a few miles from their place of birth. Just think of the opportunities presented by the mobility of our modern age. 

Human progress always transcends obstacles. This is why I am an optimist.

My buddy disagrees.  

In fact, he sees progress as part of the problem. Growth and technological advancement deplete resources, increase pollution, create over-crowding, and accelerate social dis-ease. A linear concept of time motivates people to chase progress and ignore the consequences. He cited anthropomorphic climate change as a primary example. 

According to him, circular time invites a different response. When time is conceived as an orbit rather than an arrow, people are more likely to take responsibility for their actions. Stewardship and sustainability rather than progress and exploitation become the mission. When our conception of time is circular, we are mindful that we “sleep in the bed we make.” He challenged me to envision a world where business, government, and society’s conception of time was circular. 

I remain an optimist, choosing to believe that progress will address the thorny problems of today. Still, I think my buddy has a point!

Perhaps with a circular conception of time, we would think of progress differently.

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Follow me at http://tim-coats.com

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