Time wakes you up in the morning. Time puts you to bed at night. Time whips you while you work, telling you that you must do it faster, must get it done sooner. While you sip a cup of hot chocolate, time blows the cream off the top and tells you to hurry up, there are things to be done! When you are satisfied with your life, and are perhaps gently stroking a cat, time tells you that it will all end you when you least expect it, so don’t get too relaxed.
As nearly as I can tell from my time as a biologist at the British Museum of Natural History*, humans are the only creature afflicted by time. Certainly all animals move through time, but only humans know it.
A chipmunk, for example, does not know that it has about 4 years to live. It gathers acorns and burrows in the ground and gets fat in the winter, not because there’s any rush, not because it is aware time is running out, not because it knows months are passing, but just because that’s what chipmunks do.
A human, on the other hand, knows that (if it’s very lucky, lives in a first world country, and doesn’t upset anybody too badly) it will survive to roughly 85 years of age. If a human wants to get things done, it must get them done in that time. If it does something unproductive, it knows that is wasted time. If it spends the years from 15 to 20 playing videogames, it will forever hate itself for not curing cancer instead. (Trust me, I know.) You can’t spend much time doing things considered unproductive, because you know time is limited.
Sometimes I meet a cat in the street and pet it for a minute or two, but I must move on at last, because there’s no time to just lie in the middle of the road stroking something from a different species. Yet, do any of the important things I must inevitably rush to ever give me as much joy as petting a cat?
If you work, as no inconsiderable number of people do, and are married, as some of that number are, and have children, which becomes likely with enough sleeping in the same bed, you must choose, in the evenings, whether you will sleep or have sex. You know there isn’t enough time for both. And so you must sacrifice your sex life or your actual life, because of time, because you know it’s coming, because you must get up in the morning, because there’s an alarm, because there’s work, and because the accuracy of timekeeping means everyone else knows those same things too and you have no choice.
Clocks were created to be a tool, to help us mark time, to bend time to our will. Instead, time has become our master. Our lives are sliced into neat little sections by watches, clocks, calendars, appointments, meetings, bells, planners and alarms. We must do certain things, and we must do them in this section of time, otherwise the whole system will be thrown out of order. Like no other human invention, time has made us its slave, and has integrated itself so into our world that we have no hope of ever throwing off the yoke.
Take time to imagine a world without time. What would you do, if there was no rush? If an alarm didn’t tell you when, what time would you wake up in the morning? What would you do with no knowledge of your own mortality, with no keeping track of birthdays, if you didn’t know whether your age was 25 or 45 or 65? What inconsequential things would fill your life? I, for one, would spend more time petting cats. What would you pet?
*This is a lie. I don’t even know where that museum is. Well, I know it’s in Britain. I didn’t have time to find out more.
For further reading, I recommend “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman, an 11-page short story about time which you can read just by clicking that link.