On the Nature of Time

Heraclitus and Eternal Flux

“No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man” — Heraclitus

We can’t pause time, but what if we could?

Let’s imagine how the day would be like when everything stopped; when birds would linger in mid-air like decorative origami cranes hanging from a child’s room ceiling; when people would freeze mid-sentence or mid-orgasm; when all the galaxies, planets and sub-atomic particles would slow down their orbits to a halt.

If we assume any kind of cosmic pause between two moments is possible, then nothing can assure you time didn’t freeze while you read this sentence.

If there is the slightest possibility for a zero change period, then a million years could have elapsed between the previous sentence and this one. Yet we couldn’t tell the difference.

So here’s the question:

Can time exist without change or, to put it differently, does time exist outside of unfolding events?

If the answer is yes, then time can be on its own; a self-reliant concept and dimension that doesn’t require things to happen in order to fill it, the same way a drinking glass doesn’t need to be filled with water to be still considered a glass. In that case, empty time exists and stretches backwards and forward to infinity, outlasting existence itself.

However, how can anyone define a specific moment in time when nothing happens? Even the untrained eye can easily distinguish the fact that time, by definition, is a system of temporal relations among events (something occurred before, simultaneously or after something else).

A different, less philosophical, more rational, approach renders any reason to determine empty time, a period of zero changes, unnecessary and every attempt doomed to fail since we wouldn’t be able to know the existence of such period or its duration even if it was real.

Therefore, time needs motion and change to exist and to be measured. But change also takes time to be fulfilled. You can’t have one without the other. They are two sides of the same coin.

So Time means Change.

And “the only thing that is constant is change”.

Time Travel, Daniel Chang

Our imagination can take us to the future and our memories can take us to the past. Our minds are time travellers but, outside of ourselves, there is nothing that can stop the clock hands from rotating.

Time flows swift and sure only in one direction. Some perceive it as a calm river, others as a relentless stampede. Some don’t even sense time or seem to care about it. But it’s there no matter what, and the scary truth is this:

Once you hear the tick of the clock, it is almost impossible to ignore it.

In J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan the main antagonist, Captain Hook, is haunted by the persistent and omnipresent ticking sound. He is chased by the Crocodile, the dragon of chaos, that carries a clock in its stomach.

Captain Hook has missed his right arm (in some editions or movies he misses his left one) which in many cultures stands for the potential to manifest goodness and greatness. The Crocodile has a piece of him, the best one, meaning that time has already developed a taste for you and eventually, as you get old, it will devour you.

Our meticulous and obsessive timekeeping, our self-made prison cells of gears and springs and numbers, our neurotic and anxious habit of constantly dividing time from epochs to nanoseconds to fool ourselves we have more at our disposal, are all based on one thing; the dreadful knowledge that our time eventually and inescapably will run out.

It’s only reasonable to turn bitter and tyrannical and resentful like Hook, but Peter Pan’s response to the inevitable passing of time wasn’t that mature either; wishing to stay an infant forever, refusing to grow up, living in anarchy, rejecting every responsibility, conniving at the truth. It is a sure-fire recipe for self-loathing and destruction.

You may indeed behave like an adolescent, but you are still getting older, and things change. Your age becomes the frame of reference and puts everything under a different perspective; as your skin wrinkles, your childhood innocence turns into inexcusable ignorance and naivety, and your adorable childlike mannerisms seem unsuitable or plain weird.

It’s one thing to stay young in spirit and maintain a child’s sense of wonder and lust for life, and another thing to never grow up and mature. Being a thirty-year-old baby isn’t cute, but an abomination. It’s a crisis of identity, a dichotomy of spirit. You are fragmented and in disarray.

The time and the tide wait for no man, the saying has it, and as time paves forward you either pick up the pace, or you stay behind.

You have to act your age so the spirit, mind, and body can be in alignment and you in peace.

Heraclitus, 1630, Johannes Moreelse

Rumour has it that Galileo Galilei, after he was forced to renounce his assertion that the Earth moved around the Sun during his Inquisition trial, muttered under his breath “and yet it moves”.

Galileo holds a prominent place in the pantheon of science. However, he isn’t one of the giants on whose shoulders Newton stood, as many claim today (that title belongs to Kepler).

Galileo’s talents were considerable, to be fair, but he wasn’t alone. Thanks to the new technology of the telescope, similar discoveries to his were taking place all across Europe. What distinguished him from the other scientists was his overwhelming charisma and the vividness of his writings, while what saved him from historical obscurity was his very dispute with the Catholic Church.

Apart from that, he didn’t really introduce anything new or groundbreaking. The heliocentric model had been proposed by Copernicus, whereas the idea itself was centuries older, first expressed by Aristarchus of Samos.

But most importantly, Galileo was in a position to assert the Earth is moving because Galileo lived in a universe that was already in motion.

There was a time when the known cosmos was stationary and the stars were fixed dots on the night sky. Heraclitus was the first one that proposed the unprecedented idea of eternal flux and, for that alone, he deserves the title of one of the most important thinkers in history.

Eternal Flux is the everliving fire; it’s cosmic energy; it’s the first glimpse of the second law of thermodynamics, it’s the underlying pattern of the universe. It’s the notion that nothing can come out of nothing or go to nothing. Everything transfers and transforms forever. “Cold things grow hot, the hot cools, the wet dries, the parched moistens,” Heraclitus noted.

Everything is constantly shifting, changing, and becoming something other to what it was before.

The idea was consequential.

Friedrich Nietzsche, who was heavily influenced by the works of Heraclitus, said that Heraclitus will “remain eternally right with his assertion that being is an empty fiction”.

Heraclitus with his river quote implied that becoming doesn’t apply only in nature but in men as well, saying that it’s not just the river that is different but also the man who enters it.

Change leads to becoming, and since time means change, then time is nothing else than the speed of becoming.

But is the passage of time enough to show you the way to self-actualization?

No 1 (Lavender Mist), 1950, Jackson Pollock

As a young boy, I was quite active. I used to skate, sketch, play the drums, write, go to the movies and read heavily among other leisure activities. I was a vivid learner. I was bright, athletic and creative. I was organized, responsible and disciplined. I was everything a parent wishes his child to be.

I got smarter and better and more well-rounded per year, but I hadn’t developed the insight yet to understand I was only reaping the benefits of such activities and of my parents’ care. I assumed I got better due to the mere fact I was growing up, that the passing of time alone was enough.

I was wrong.

Soon afterwards, when my self-care was almost non-existent, my life looked quite like the painting above. Messy, inconsistent, deriving no meaning or sense at all. That is because Jackson Pollock’s paintings are the most artistic and representative depictions of the Second Law of Thermodynamics; Entropy.

The second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy, is the principle of disorder. It states that entropy, which is the gradual decline of all elements into disorder, can never decrease in a closed system, it can only increase. Thus, everything in existence is bound to become increasingly disorganized, diluted and randomized.

Time changes things but changes them in a way that results in more disorder, unless additional energy is provided for their maintenance.

Time without Becoming is just Entropy.

When you don’t devote a certain amount of energy to yourself, when you neglect your body, when you don’t sharpen your mind, when you don’t caress for your soul through artistic and spiritual expression, then you let your guard down, you stop resisting to the degenerative power of time and you give entropy permission to do its job.

The Takeaway

The speed of time may vary, as proven by the theory of relativity, but its direction is constant. A shuttered cup will never repair itself, a waterfall will never fly back to the edge of the cliff, and a stopped heart will never beat on its own again. Future always comes, and future brings along our death. That is why for most people time is the enemy.

However, time can prove a great ally, when you don’t let it just slip through your fingers like sand, but make good use of it, for it is not the passing of time that attains your goals and brings meaning, but your will and action.

Everything worthwhile takes time (or maybe it’s the time we invest that adds value), but if you don’t transform your will and motivation through patience and discipline into initiative and action, time will just pass and nothing will happen.

The real enemy isn’t time, but your inertia.

That is the reason the self-esteem movements, for instance, are dramatically damaging to the individual’s psyche. The “you are beautiful the way you are” argument contradicts a fundamental truth, a natural law, already spoken twenty-five centuries ago by Heraclitus; that you, and everything around you, are continuous and fluid, forever changing.

The current narrative of being perfect the way you are implies that you don’t have to change anything and condemns you to stasis. You resist change and therefore betterment and renewal. It focuses on being, but being is not that important. Being is static and stiff, and stiffness is only a property of the dead.

What matters is who you can be and strive for that.

What matters is becoming.

“It is in changing that we find purpose.”

You are under no obligation to be the same man you were five minutes ago, and who you were five minutes ago has no power over you and shouldn’t define you as long as you demonstrate an effort to change.

“The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think and what you do is who you become.”

It will take time, but all valuable things do. Don’t let that disappoint you and lead you to idleness. Don’t give up just because of the time it will take to accomplish it.

Time will pass anyway.

That is its nature, that is what it does. You can either waste it or make something out of it.

The choice remains yours.