The photo off to the side here shows my ancient cat’s pill dispenser. Two pills of different dosage values go down his gullet in the morn (note the “a.m.” slot), two at night (“p.m.”), to keep his wonky thyroid properly modulated. I take a couple of minutes to fill this dispenser every Sunday night, both to save myself the trouble of fishing individual pills out of their respective bottles twice daily, and also as a backup for my wonky memory (for which no modulation is available) as the day proceeds and I ask myself, “Did I give Rascal his pills this morn?”
What strikes me most about this weekly ritual is the increasing feeling, week to week, that I JUST DID THIS LIKE ABOUT…16 HOURS AGO!
And therein lies the problem of time, and memory, and the future, and life and meaning and death and the music and the philosophy that does its level best to make sense of it all and keep us from throwing ourselves off the bridge nearest our home.
I used to fantasize that someday, when I would be retired or nearly so, I would have all manner of time blocks, time nooks and crannies in my day that I could fill with scores of meaningful, unhurried activities, done at my own, far more pressure-free pace than I had ever known in my working life. Time would once again be able to be savored, observed, noted in its slow passing, like the lazy days of youthful summers in the long ago.
That’s just one more delusion that the passage of time has obliterated.
So we lapse into a kind of waking sleep, filling our lives with frivolity and conformity, blindly following the herd, refusing to adopt the ‘resoluteness’ that Heidegger insists is required to find our way toward a life of hard-won ‘authenticity.’
Yes, it’s the same construct of the 60-minute-hour, 24-hour-day that I have always known—objectively speaking. But that has almost nothing to do with my lived experience of time, which feels to be passing, alas, with ever more rapidity, like the forward-rushing train I often felt was hurtling along inside me as I sought to keep pace with the hundreds of details and tasks it carried along through my workday.
Now that I’m not “working” much at all for a living, my brain no longer feeling over-stuffed with to-do lists, the urgency and speed of that task-heavy train has notably slowed. Problem is, my experience of time hasn’t—at all.
If anything, the days and weeks are passing more quickly, 4 p.m. splaying itself at my feet daily like a sudden burst of rain, the human construct of “Thursday” alarming me from my cat’s pill dispenser as I stare at it and exclaim, “Already?”
Which brings us to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), and the English rock band Pink Floyd (1965-1995). Though their respective careers overlapped by more than a decade, I think it safe to assume they never met or considered any kind of creative collaboration. Which is something of a pity, given the clear common interests they shared in the Big Questions of Human Life, one of them being: “What’s with Andrew Hidas and pretty much everyone he knows always complaining about how fast their lives are racing by?”
Heidegger addressed the question in broad strokes in his seminal work, “Being and Time,” which I will be quick to admit has sat on my shelf for decades only very lightly read, owing to its opaque, mostly impenetrable prose that has confounded all but the most dedicated professional philosophers since its publication in 1927. Fortunately, we have many learned “interpreters,” after a fashion, no doubt more accurately called “explainers,” who unweave the near-fatally dense tapestry of his prose and make of it what they ensure us is one of the towering works in philosophical history.
As our good fortune would have it, a chunk of that work is devoted to the same problem that vexed chief songwriter Roger Waters and his bandmates in Pink Floyd’s 1973 anthem, “Time,” arguably the pre-eminent song on the group’s pre-emiment album, ”The Dark Side of the Moon.” (Sure would like to have seen Heidegger broach that topic!)
Let’s take the song a stanza at a time, meshing it with observations from Heidegger along the way (as filtered through his explainers).
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way
“Thrownness” is a major starting point in the Heideggerian framework. Human beings are “thrown” into the world, laden with a self-consciousness that both goads them to wonder about what it all means and then torments them when the answers are not forthcoming. So we lapse into a kind of waking sleep, filling our lives with frivolity and conformity, blindly following the herd, refusing to adopt the “resoluteness” that Heidegger insists is required to find our way toward a life of hard-won “authenticity.”
Unable or unwilling to face our predicament, we wait, as Waters also suggests, “for someone or something to show (us) the way.” (Religions of easy answers and hard-and-fast dogmas often fill that role nicely.)
Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
And you are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun
Is there a more devastating violation of the gift and burden of life than the phrase, “I’m just killing time?” The notion is monstrous on its face, given time’s relentless passage in a circumscribed life. And as one lolls about playing solitaire or watching mindless television, the days add up, compressing themselves and becoming part and parcel of who we are.
Waters’s “ten years (that) have got behind you” are for Heidegger our “having-been-ness”—our very history, the set of particulars given to us and no one else, anchored in the past but brought into a present that is uniquely our own, to do with as we will. Our past and present then seek their completion, their wholeness, in the “being-toward” of our future, and its inevitable end in death. (More on that below.)
This separates Heidegger from much pop psychology that emphasizes the primacy of the present in almost worshipful tones. Not for him any nihilistic pursuit of pleasure or distraction or even mere attention that owes nothing to a past that is dead and a future that hasn’t happened and is therefore not real. Quite the contrary, actually.
For Heidegger, the three points of time’s triangle—past, present, future—are of a piece, requiring each other for a unity that lays the groundwork for an authentic existence that incorporates the past and is all too aware of a future that is unknown in the short term but is known in the long-term (our eventual death). That future known end point serves as a powerful goad in the conscious self-creation of the present.
Such self-creation means we do not wait for someone or something to tell us “when to run.” Nor do we rely on some abstract “eternity” to make sense of the present. We have been thrown into existence, but exploring and determining the essence of that existence is up to us, our decision to make, our action to take, lest we miss the starting gun.
And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death
Here we have Waters and Heidegger with hands clasped tightly in a spiritual kinship. Waters’s “one day closer to death” begs the question of whether we even realize the enormity of his point as we fritter away the days we have been bequeathed. Are we living at all in Heidegger’s “being-toward death,” summoning a little bird to perch on our shoulder and remind us of time’s relentlessness and our inability to ever get a do-over on any of it?
The hourglass empties some more, the hair goes from dark to silver to white (or just falls out), and what are we doing? Still convincing ourselves it’s the same sun coming up again after the previous evening’s descent, and therefore we’re the same, too?
Even the sun, as a matter of fact, is dying, though it’s going to be a while, and it sure will be burning bright until it does slip away for the last time, never to return.
Can we say the same?
Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say
There is passivity here, writ large. The narrator makes plans, wants to make time to enact them, but he never seems to find it. Time somehow slips away, eluding his every best intention. So he hangs on, in the “quiet desperation” of the “English way,” but which is hardly unknown in the world beyond.
This is as far from Heidegger’s prescription, such as it is, for living a meaningful life as it is possible to be, and it could not be closer to his diagnosis of what stands in the way. Coming into the world from the personal “nothingness” before our birth, we are destined for the second “nothingness” we face after our death.
In between those poles, we have many choices to make, many avenues to pursue—or not. “Hanging on in quiet desperation” is one choice, which both Heidegger and Waters look on askance.
After all, the time will go and “our song” will be over one day, as it will be for everyone. All humans share that in common. But will we be among those who thought we’d have had “something more to say,” regretful at the last?
Or will we have treasured and used and “said something” about our time here, in one form or other, toward one purpose or other, not mere seeds blown about by the wind, but resolute, standing on a firm ground of conviction about how we will try to live, the relations and experiences from our past combining with the sure knowledge of our end to richly inform the decisions we make in the present?
The latter takes us out of the commonplace and into Heidegger’s “ecstases”—past, present and future in all their concreteness and temporality, Heidegger having labored paradoxically through dense thickets of abstraction and a virtual new language to make a powerful case for everyday life and our rootedness to it, a “dwelling place” we are wise to tend to, purposefully, through all our days.
“Time” has one more verse, a somewhat curious addition, almost an addendum, rife with comfort symbolism, a kind of add-on that some Internet sources suggest was part of another song—“Breathe”— also on the same album, but for which I can find no evidence. In any case, this concluding verse suggests a retreat from anguish and uncertainty, a kind of light side of the moon, taking the narrator into familiar habitats of home and religion.
Home, home again I like to be here when I can
And when I come home cold and tired
It’s good to warm my bones beside the fire
Far away across the field
The tolling of the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spells
What’s not clear is whether this is represented as solace or delusion. Greater reality or magic spell? Does it matter? And how will we know one from the other, ever?
Given the subject matter at hand, my inclination is to let the question sit there, ultimately unanswered—like so many others.
And so here we are, all of a piece, in performance…
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Pill dispenser by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/
Hourglass by Aron Visuals https://unsplash.com/@aronvisuals
Dandelion by John Bennett, Derbyshire, UK https://www.flickr.com/photos/jbgoblin/
Being and Time really??!! Love it, am pretty sure there is no other person I know who has this nifty little essay on their book shelf – opaque/impenetrable indeed, however Roger Waters and Pink Floyd, I am with ya all the way here! So this led me to a 90 min or so micro rabbit hole looking into Marty H.– knew the name associate Existential Philosophy but couldn’t have told you one thing about him (now I actually can but his ideas, not so much!). All of which led to a nice dog walk with Ms. Bailey and some reflections on Being and Time – nothing revelatory but here you go; Time is at some physical level objective in terms of physics/chemistry/etc – from the four seasons to the Big Bang time is concrete, we can measure it, analyze it, etc whereas Being is totally subjective. Of course, here’s where it gets interesting. As you noted we can all relate to time speeding by as many of us enter into our “elderhood” (at 71 “old fart” I can relate to but something about being an “elder” doesn’t sit so well), experiencing retirement, grand children (if lucky enough to have them) and such our perception/experience of time seems to change. I’ve often thought the kind of “Being” that absorbed me totally (e.g. skiing, mtn biking playing music, lost in conversation, a great book, film etc) experientially felt like they were somehow out of time, it was only at some pause or end point that I might go “wow, where did the time go?” I guess philosophers would talk about this as phenomenology, it is our subjective lived experience that alters the objective/scientific calculation. It’s interesting to muse on what in popular neuro/psycho/philosophic circles is referred to as the “hard problem of consciousness”, which seems to be smack dab in the middle of Heidegger’s “Being– the subjective experience of everything, including the notion of time. So far using the reductive tools of science which have split atoms, taken us to the moon etc. we can’t begin to explain what consciousness it, how and why it works the way it does, yet it is the very bedrock of our being – our lived phenomenological experience! Here’s where meditation, prayer, poetry, psychedelics and such may have more practical value than all the laboratory theories and studies we can muster in terms of coming to grips with the “hard problem of consciousness”. Ah, Being and Time – thanks for enriching my Sunday in our weird world of pandemic Andrew!
Kevin, very happy to hear this set you off on a mini-quest to grok Heidegger! Complex as it all sounds at first blush, nuggets abound, long as one grabs the hand and hangs on to one of his many helpful interpreters! One of those, William Barrett (“Irrational Man”) was referring in a text I was reviewing this morn to Heidegger’s sense of Being as a “field” that we inhabit—not to conquer and control it, but instead more to graze and participate in it, to take its temperature, so to speak, and see how we are moved to act upon it. No hard and fast split between subject and object, none of that Nietzschean “will to power” over things and people, but in Barrett’s words, approaching that “field” by “letting it be what it is…and allowing it to reveal itself as what it is.”
May sound passive, but H hardly lets anyone off the hook, because from there, life is all about what one does and the self one creates and sustains within that field. But the field is a given, filled with history and context, which includes our own future demise, which should be all we need to get some giddyup in our step and get on with the job of self-creation, which falls to no one else but ourselves.
I’m not sure that Heidegger used the term “giddyup,” though. I’ll get back to you on that…
Time has always been a strange, finite and awesome notion anyway to me, especially since overcoming two bouts with cancer. In 1965, I was 15 years old. It was also the 50th year anniversary of D.W. Griffith’s epic silent film The Birth of a Nation. 50 years ago today Patton was released. In 1915. Enrico Caruso sang Nessun Dorma at Milan’s La Scala. 50 years ago the Beatles released Let it Be. The first World War and Vietnam also time parallel one another. I just can’t get my mind around the fact of their equivalencies. It’s yesterday versus the Dark Ages. Doesn’t time distort existence?
Good question, Mr. Spencer! I think time certainly segments and to a great degree influences our existence—just the passage from day to night has almost completely shaped our circadian rhythms, our social lives and activities, etc. (Including our Happy Hours!) “Distortion” carrying a value judgement as it does (distorted from what?), I can’t really say whether time does that to existence. Seems to me time’s inextricable link to memory is one thing that sets humans apart from say, this dog lying at my feet right now. The acuteness of memory begets storytelling from our past, with all its attendant gladness, horror, regret, winsomeness, and the thousand other mental matters that our animal brethren are (mercifully, I sometimes think) spared. Whether all that serves as a distortion or the crown of creation, I’m not sure, but it certainly seems to be an urgent matter motivating humankind.
Remarkably, we happened upon a Jerry Seinfeld 1 hour standup bit done for Netflix shortly after reading this post. Among several observations/riffs was Seinfeld’s bit about “going out.” Lots of time and energy, he notes, is devoted to preparing “to go out;” we make arrangements with friends, purchase tickets, arrange transportation in order to “go out.” He reminded his audience that, at that moment, they were all “out.” And, he observed, it wouldn’t be long before they’d be thinking about “getting back.” He went on to observe our hurry to get to the airport in order to wait for departure, and then to anxiously check watches in flight in anticipation of arrival time. All of his observations, of course, hit home; and they offered a humorous reminder that there are moments in which we must take a breath and be present… Absent some means or practice to make this part of our daily existence, we are bedazzled by how quickly trash day arrives, med refills attended to, etc. I too figured that retirement from professional responsibilities would slow things down a bit. It is now six years later, and it got here real quickly. In my experience it has only been in really wanting time to pass that it slowed noticeably. A lengthy hospital stay several years ago triggered my desire to want time to pass so that I could return to life outside medical care. This desire only seemed to slow the perception of time passing. Rapidly moving toward my seventies I haven’t yet determined if I want the parachute to open for a long and hopefully smooth landing, or to stay on pace and collapse at the finish line, following Neil Young’s plaintive cry of “better to burn out than to fade away.”