Emotions and our sense of time

St Mary’s Abbey (engraving by E. Finden)

As we begin the Gregorian New Year, we are reminded of the relentless passage of time.  The deepest parts of our personalities are structured in terms of our sense of time, such as our memories from the past, our hopes and dreams for the future, and our awareness of our own mortality.  Indeed, our sense of our existence is not merely with respect to the present, but in terms of a multitude of emotions and moods directed towards the past and future, including frustration, anxiety, regret, anticipation, excitement etc.  We may recall a famous definition of the self as something that is structured with respect to such dynamic states of mind.

‘Desire, aversion, effort, pleasure, suffering and thinking are the signs of the self’

[Nyāya Sūtra 1.1.10; my own translation]

With this in mind, it is no surprise that ancient peoples everywhere made sense of their lives in relation to the changes they observed in the seasons and in the movements of heavenly bodies with the passage of time.  In Christianity, planetary and seasonal cycles were held to be of paramount importance.  Thus the spring equinox, originally 25th March, was held to be the day when God created the world and also the date of conception of Jesus Christ, celebrated as the Feast of the Annunciation.  And indeed, many calendars of the world celebrate the New Year in and around springtime, when the natural world comes back to life.

Earlier still, the winter solstice was marked at Stonehenge, Newgrange and other neolithic sites across the world as an important calendrical milestone.  As English Heritage explain

“Winter might have been a time of fear as the days grew shorter and colder. People must have longed for the return of light and warmth. Marking this yearly cycle may have been one of the reasons that Neolithic people constructed Stonehenge – a monument aligned to the movements of the sun … Although the tallest trilithon at the monument is no longer standing, the sun would have set between the narrow gap of these uprights during the winter solstice.”

Some sense of weariness may overcome us on reflection about this merciless onslaught of the force of time.  However, rather than ennui, the following well-known verse-line from the Bhagavad Gītā is perhaps intended to elicit a sense of awe at the immense power of time as the primal force of change, equated with the divinity of Krishna himself –

“I am time, the cause of all development and decay.”

[Bhagavad Gītā 11.32a; my own translation]

Indeed, reflection on the magnificent mystery of time itself has inspired the greatest awe and wonder, and prompted profound philosophical reflection.  It is seemingly the awareness of time as this kind of supreme controller that animated the followers of the kāla-vāda or ‘time-ism’ doctrine of ancient India, about which we however know relatively little.  A similarly feeling of awe about the power of fate to change all circumstances seems to have animated the Anglo-Saxons, as can be seen for example in the poem ‘The Ruin’ –

Bright were the burg-halls, many the bath-houses,
High the horned gables; great the tumult of troops,
Many the mead-halls filled with joy,
Until powerful fate changed that.

[from The Ruin; my own translation]

We see here a similar focus on the force of time and the power of fate, here captured by the term ‘wyrd’, a significant term for the Anglo-Saxons, and from which we get the modern word ‘weird’.  The poem continues with a reflective and sentimental attitude towards time’s effects in causing decay and the present observation of ruins from the past –

So the buildings drearily crumble,
and the roof scatters down curved tivor tiles
from the rafters.  The ruin has fallen to the ground,
broken into rubble, where many a warrior,
in good spirits and decked in gold-bright gleam,
proud and wine-gladdened, shone in war-gear

[from The Ruin; my own translation]

As I have tried to illustrate here, our awareness of the passage of time and its effects seems to evoke a complex mix of emotions in us.  In part, it is a source of fear and dread, in part it is a source of wonder and awe, and in part it is a source of melancholy.  This is true in our everyday life, and is also expressed in much literature and poetry.

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