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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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/