Oliver Burke­man

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents -

on time. Plus My life in sex: the eu­nuch

We talk about time in con­fus­ing ways – as any­one who’s ever tried to move a meet­ing with me “for­ward” a few days will be able to tes­tify. With my dy­ing breath, I’ll main­tain that this means mov­ing it into the fu­ture, for­ward along the time­line I pic­ture pro­ject­ing into the dis­tance from where I’m stand­ing. Yet most peo­ple, I have learned, ac­tu­ally think that this means hold­ing the meet­ing sooner, metaphor­i­cally pulling it for­ward to­wards them. The Ay­mara peo­ple of the An­des see the fu­ture be­hind them and the past in front; some ru­ral Pa­puans see the fu­ture ly­ing up­hill. And a new study from Italy, re­ported on the Re­search Di­gest blog, adds an in­trigu­ing de­tail: it found that Ital­ians who have been blind since birth or early child­hood don’t gen­er­ally con­ceive of the past as be­hind them, or the fu­ture in front. (No doubt they can talk this way as well as any­one; the study was de­signed to elicit in­stinc­tive as­so­ci­a­tions.) Nor do they think of an event in two months’ time as “closer” than one two months ago. But sighted peo­ple do, which makes sense: the space up ahead is in front of our eyes, while the space be­hind takes ef­fort to see.

All of which is a re­minder of how odd it is that we think of time us­ing spa­tial metaphors at all – in­deed, that it seems vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble not to. Ask me about the com­ing month and I can’t help pic­tur­ing a se­quence of lit­tle boxes, like a cal­en­dar; ask me what I did yes­ter­day and my eyes shoot up­wards, as I con­sult a “space” some­where be­hind my head. Your spe­cific im­ages may not match mine, but an­thro­pol­o­gists sug­gest that the ba­sic metaphor – “time is space” – is a cul­tural uni­ver­sal. Which is a pity, in a way, be­cause I’m pretty sure it makes our ex­pe­ri­ence of time more an­guished than it needs to be.

Take busy­ness: for me, the feel­ing of over­whelm is bound up with a sense of time as a phys­i­cal con­tainer, too small for the tasks I need to cram in. (The an­thro­pol­o­gist Ed­ward Hall once said that Amer­i­cans see time as an end­less conveyor belt, car­ry­ing bot­tles that must be filled; if one passes by un­filled, time’s been wasted.) When you stop and no­tice that’s just a metaphor, it’s lib­er­at­ing. There is no con­tainer and thus no need to fret about whether it’ll prove big enough. There’s just you, in this mo­ment of time, and all you can do is use it as best you can.

Such metaphors also trick us into think­ing we con­trol time more than we do. Af­ter all, mort­gage not­with­stand­ing, I re­ally do own my phys­i­cal space; it’s up to me how I use it. But as the blog­ger David Cain points out, we never re­ally have time: “The time we ‘have’ is never where we are, and we can never see it, un­like any­thing else we have.” Any num­ber of things might dis­rupt your plans, and even­tu­ally death cer­tainly will. So treat­ing time as if you own it is a recipe for stress.

We prob­a­bly can’t aban­don these metaphors, and be­sides, they are use­ful. But it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing also that they’re only metaphors. Wouldn’t that be the wis­est ap­proach, go­ing for­ward?

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.