Time Is Not A Thing: Beyond Birthdays And Other Disasters
As December moves along, I always look ahead towards the date in January that people call my birthday. Birthdays only get worse as time passes. Optimistic slants on life tend to focus on improvement as we move forward: skills are honed with work and dedication; financial, emotional, and spiritual resources grow as we become wiser and savvier; we keep adding friends and friendly acquaintances who can help us enjoy life and succeed at our goals. But, when you take a long view and include this birthday issue, it doesn’t really work like that. At a certain age, you’re often seen as too old to begin a new career. At a roughly similar point, you notice that alumni networks are seeing you as the person who can help the younger alumni, not the one who still needs a boost. At another, later period, people begin to express surprise if you haven’t yet retired from boards of organizations and other positions of leadership. Beginning a role like that at this point would be nearly impossible: people would worry that your health might not hold up.
The perceived arc of time in a human life is bell-curve-shaped. Up to a certain point, everyone expects you to improve and soar ahead, meeting new goals and succeeding in new ways. Beyond that point, the movement is straight and then downward: settling into a position, coming to terms with your place in the world, and then, gradually, slowing down and moving towards a state of rest. Of course there are exceptions: very late bloomers and such. But their very exceptionality in some ways proves my point. “Oh wow, how amazing that so-and-so published her first book at 70/ran a marathon at 65/started a fabulous new business at 80/or some such.” As if such things were strange. As if time moved forward, gifting us with all kinds of new strengths until it begins to take them all away.
Beginning fairly early in life, birthdays only get worse, and they happen much too quickly. Once you finally get used to being, say, over 30, you might be 45. Just as you’re coming to terms with not being seen as a young person, you might start to notice that your friends are beginning to retire and move to Miami. And it all deteriorates exponentially from there. Let’s not even get into what the next stage might bring, however you might see yourself in the privacy of your own mind.
But this all assumes that time is a thing. Maybe it’s more of a false construct than the real, insurmountable, omnipresent thing that almost everyone assumes it to be. Last week, at a small party, I met a former Buddhist monk who believes, essentially, that time as we see it is an illusion. In his conception, the only state in time that exists is the present. Past and future are nothing but misconceptions. We can imagine the past or the future… but only with the mindset of the present. Thus, the future and the past only exist from the vantage point of the present: they’re ideas that come up during a present that never begins and never ends. This man — a bright, peaceful, middle-aged dude — believes that no one’s conscious awareness ever dies… because we’re all conscious now, and now is all there is.
I like this approach. In its own mysterious way, it could solve my biggest problems. Of course, the mystery is real: I have trouble squaring this philosophy with the fact that people I know for sure seem to grow older: to mature as children and later, as adults, to age. Circumstances change. People lose their health and die. I see it, and it’s hard to deny it. The former Buddhist monk himself agreed that it’s not a good idea to get so involved with the present that you don’t bother to plan for your later years.
It’s a paradox that I don’t know how to penetrate. But maybe that’s OK. Maybe, for once, I can sit at the edge of a mystery and not obsess too deeply over it. The present is everything and will never end. Maybe I should just meditate on that and smile, and not ruin it with attempts to make it fit fully within everything I’ve noticed about how life works.
So about those alleged birthdays: if everything is the present and the present never moves into the future, we don’t get older, right? Some smart-ass will probably chime in to explain why my reasoning is spurious, but I don’t want to hear it. For once in my life, an idea I discovered has the potential to bring me some peace, and, when I step back and engage with it while in just the right mood, it feels absolutely valid.
And yet… there’s something grand about birthdays. The getting older part sours shortly after adulthood hits and eventually morphs into tragedy, but there’s something lovely about a day when your friends and family recognize you and let you know that they’re happy you’re alive… and, more important, when you sense your own phenomenal value. What if birthdays weren’t birthdays but they were still… something? What if they didn’t signify the passage of time but instead represented something fabulous about the wonderful now that will never end?
Here is my suggestion: Instead of birthdays, we should have… I Am Glorious Days.
Don’t misunderstand: this is not an assertion of my greatness over yours. It’s a heartfelt statement that all of us are great. Each one of us will celebrate this day, whenever we might have celebrated our birthdays. If now is everything and we have all always existed, then each of us must play a crucial part in the universe’s unfolding. Each of us has a particular perspective and a special energy that this world — the physical manifestation of the infinite now — needs in order to continue existing. In honor of that, periodically, we should each celebrate our own gloriousness. Now, time does not exist, so it’s dicey to talk about doing this once per year, but I see nothing wrong with declaring your own I Am Glorious Day when the strange illusion that feels like time passing gives the impression that the day we used to call your birthday arrives. At that point, you can do whatever you want to celebrate yourself. Some enjoy parties; some enjoy intimate meals with close family or friends; some may even want to spend the day on their own, doing whatever they might choose.
One fabulous feature of I Am Glorious Day: it’s more flexible than a birthday. If the illusion of your birthday should arrive on a day when you have to work or do something unpleasant, you can shift it to the closest day that will allow you to enjoy yourself free from worries about having to do things or be somewhere that you don’t care for. How can we talk about one day as opposed to another if time doesn’t exist? The best answer I can muster is that days are divisions the human mind makes when it takes the never-ending now and tries to break it into understandable pieces. Infinite now is shimmeringly complex, while human minds — even the brightest of them — need to tackle concepts in small doses. So we feel like days pass, and then years, and then decades, when in fact, everything is always just plain, pure, never-changing now.
Why is this important? Because I Am Glorious Days overthrow one key feature of birthdays: the impression that we are getting older. This is nothing but a chilling misconception. When your I Am Glorious Day rolls around, don’t let anyone even joke about concepts like aging or the end of youth. Don’t let false concepts like age equaling the number of years lived creep into any discussion surrounding your most special day.
I can tell you right now: I am a very open person, and few opinions offend me. But there is one horrifyingly widespread opinion that I will no longer abide: the belief that time passes, and that we get older. We don’t. That baby playing with the ball in her crib? That 15-year-old sitting by the pool during the summer, feeling insecure about her chubby legs? That 20-year-old realizing that she’ll never see human interaction the same way again after her sociology professor’s stunning lecture? They’re all me. Now. Nothing has changed, and time has not moved forward.
You can tease me about all kinds of things, but not this. The implications are too dire. Our understanding of the most fundamental building block of reality — the now that never ends — is at stake here. Age is, at most, a state of the mind, not of the body or of some illusion called time. Right now, I feel 22, so that’s my age. If my conception should change, so will my truth. I say “my truth” as opposed to “the truth” because the ultimate truth is that time is just a joke we have played on ourselves — a devastating joke that has gone much too far.
You can look towards your I Am Glorious Day with pure delight and no hint of dread, because it means nothing less than the celebration of You, capital You, the You that will always exist… and thrive.