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Gilbert: Time and Reality

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What I read was startling. The newspaper said that a development project could happen [quote] “by 2020, 15 years earlier than anticipated.” I thought, wait, what year is it now? 2014. It didn’t take me too long to do the math: 2020 is only six years away, not nearly as far in the future as I initially thought. Heck, six years ago it was 2008, and that’s almost yesterday.

We think of measurements of time – minutes, days, years – as being as objective and unchanging as a yardstick. After all, three feet is three feet; how you feel about it isn’t relevant. But for us, time isn’t as straightforward as that, whether we’re looking into the future or looking to the past. And our take on time is often wrong.

News stories about climate change include dates that sound like they are so far in the future as to be unreal. That’s a real problem, a potentially disastrous impression. “Such and such will happen,” the experts may say, “by the middle of this century.” Well, the middle of this century, 2050, is actually only 36 years from now. Heck, 36 years ago it was 1978; for many of us, memories of the ‘70s are still fresh – for better and for worse.

I see clothes in my closet that I had back in 1978 – and I still wear. And some of the clothes I buy today, I realize, will most likely see me through to the end of the ride!

For many of us, whatever happens 36 years into the future will happen soon enough to affect us ourselves, let alone our children or grandchildren. And surely our obligation to the future extends beyond our own lifespans or even that of the next two generations. When we talk about making a lasting difference with our lives, surely we mean a longer period of time than that! Our national parks, after all, are dedicated to preserving our nation’s natural treasures not for a few generations, but “forever.”

We often think of ourselves as years, even decades, younger than we really are. It took me a long time to realize that while in my mind’s eye I was in my early thirties and still a Young Turk, when others looked at me, particularly young people (like my former high school students), they saw a white-haired guy of some indeterminate age, but certainly not young by any means. They were right, not me. Like the guy says in Monty Python’s Holy Grail movie, “I’m not dead yet,” but I’m not young anymore, either. My knees regularly remind me of that fact, especially coming down a steep mountain trail.

Mick Jagger sang, “Time is on my side, yes it is.” I don’t know what he was smoking - well, actually I do - but the sooner we disabuse ourselves of some of our illusions about time, and especially come to understand that the distant future is not as distant as we often think, the better off we, and our planet, may be.