1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Thirty: Time
Posted on September 30, 2018 Posted by John Scalzi 27 Comments
This entire series is about time; it makes sense to end it with a piece directly on the subject.
There are a number of ways for me to consider time, particularly since 1998, the year in which I started Whatever, and the point in which, for the purposes of this series, I start considering the world and my place in it. I could say that now, twenty years on from 1998, I have less time than I did then. Time is ticking, I’m not getting younger, and all that. Conversely, however, I’ve had more time since then. So many things have happened — the birth of my daughter, the debut of my novels, all the joys and successes of the last two decades — that I could not have imagined when I first sat down in September of 1998 to write that first Whatever post.
Should I be sad that I have less time now? Or happy that I have had more time since then, for all the wonderful things and people in these last twenty years?
It’s a trick question, I think. I have neither more time nor less time than I had in 1998. I have always had the same amount of time, and that amount of time has always been finite. What’s true then is what’s true now: That I have no idea of how much time I have, except in a highly generalized “here’s what the human life expectancy is on average” sort of way. But whatever that amount of time is, it’s what it always has been, in a very real sense. Just because I currently don’t know its reckoning doesn’t mean it’s not eventually knowable. I will know its total length soon enough (I mean that in a geological sense. Again, I’m in no rush).
In the Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman, there’s a scene where the incarnation of Death is doing her rounds. She meets up with someone who have lived a very long time, and who wonders if that long lifetime was enough. Death replies that he got what everyone gets: One lifetime, no more or less. In one hand, that comment is literally comic book sophistry, but on the other hand it is also absolutely correct. We all get one life, no more, no less. When it’s gone, it’s gone, and the time of it, in a very real sense, won’t matter. Every moment of time we have will collapse into the singularity of the past, gone and inaccessible. Live for a day, live for a hundred years, what eventually comes of it is a single point of fact: You existed.
It’s an equal and banal truism that it’s not the years in your life but the life in your years. There have been people who have changed the world and their culture who lived a relative handful of years, and people who have lived for a century who, as far as anyone outside their immediate family are concerned, have done nothing notable other than to simply not die for a statistically rare amount of time. The old joke is “by the time Mozart was my age, he’s been dead for [x] years,” which is a reminder that life ultimately is not about the amount of time but what one can do with it.
But at the same time I kind of hate that formulation. Yes, by the time Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for fourteen years. But at the age Mozart died, I was only just then having my first novel published — everything I am likely to be remembered for, to the extent that I will be remembered at all, happened to me after the age of 35. Does this mean I was wasting my time before that age? No, it means that whatever was required for me to create, and be in a place and time where my novels could be published, took place in that time. No time was wasted, because I was becoming the person who could write novels that people wanted to read.
Which is to say that the “life in your years” doesn’t mean you have to hit the ground running, achieve everything before you wrinkle and die leaving a beautiful corpse. The “life in your years” can be at any point in your years, and can be in all of your years. Nor does it mean, with apologies to Mozart and even to myself and my scribblings, that you have to do something intended for the world to see. The person who mindfully lives a just and moral and kind life has lived a life with value beyond themselves, even if no one other than their closest friends and family ever know of them.
So what if no one else ever knows them? Because that is a thing, too: We all get swallowed by the singularity of time. Some resist its gravity longer than others but eventually we all fall beneath its event horizon. Time claims most people when the people who remember them pass on; creators are claimed when their works lie unread or unseen or unheard (or unattributed). The time I will be remembered will likely be more than your average accountant and less than Mozart. But even Mozart’s memory will have its time and then it will be gone too.
Don’t worry about Mozart. He’s beyond caring. As I will be, and as will that accountant. We’ll have had our time, and made our marks, or not, and will have moved on. We will have our lifetime, no more or less. And then it and we will be gone, and time will have moved on, and other people will have their one lifetime, with all the time they will ever have within them as well. It’s how it works. It’s how it’s always worked.
I try not to worry too much about the time I have left. Aside from basic maintenance like diet and exercise and not going out of my way to taunt grizzlies, it’s not up to me. I make plans and work toward a future I want (and for a future beyond what I will see myself), and do so with the realization that not everything I plan may be realized in my lifetime. I am glad for the time I have had, for the experiences and joys and the people in it, who have made my time so heartbreakingly wonderful.
My time will pass. Your time will pass. Everyone’s time will pass. Even the sun’s time will pass and after it, the entire universe. We all get one lifetime, no more or less.
And you might ask, well, what’s even the point? If it all passes in time, even the universe, why do anything?
Well, what else are you going to do with your time?
But more completely, just because we all eventually stop having time doesn’t mean the time you have doesn’t matter — to yourself, to the people who love you and who you love, or even to the world. You live in a vanishingly small slice of time, true. But in that vanishingly small slice of time also exists the whole of the universe, and billions of people, and everyone you will ever meet and know and care about and love. You can use your time caring about them and for them, celebrating their joys and healing their sorrows, telling them stories and singing them songs and painting them great canvases of color. What you do matters when you do it. It may even matter when your time has passed.
Not forever — nothing lasts forever — but remember: “The life in your years.” In this time, and in your time, you can do things that mean something. You can mean something. For enough time to make a difference.
I’ve had 20 years writing here on Whatever. It’s given me joy, helped me make sense of myself and the world, introduced me to dear friends and has literally changed my life. I don’t regret any of the time I’ve given to it, and am glad I have taken the time to do it. I don’t know how much more time I’ll write here — one never knows! Time is like that! — but until the time I stop, however it is I stop, I plan to enjoy the time I spend writing it.
I hope you will, too. Thank you for taking the time to read it, and me.
“The person who mindfully lives a just and moral and kind life has lived a life with value beyond themselves, even if no one other than their closest friends and family ever know of them.”
This. Yes. We could all stand to remember this more often.
The moment is all we have. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.
“Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body; but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Holy Shit! What a Ride!'” — author unknown
Thank you so much for this series, John.
To quote that sage philosopher, Zathras, from Babylon 5:
Ivanova: “We’re going to run out of time for ” *technobabble*
Zathras: “Cannot run out of time; there is infinite time. YOU are finite. Zathras is finite….THIS is wrong tool…no, no, not good….never use this.”
“There are a number of ways for me to consider time…”
Wait, you mean it’s not a helix of semi-precious stones? Why, why, I’ve been lied to! I feel so cheap.
Two of my favorite conversational observations about this subject are:
“Don’t worry about it, you’ll be dead. Just do your best.”
“We’re going to die! (beat, beat, beat) Everyone does.”
Well-stated. Time is perception, humans created this unit of measurement that in essence is meaningless. We are the ones who assign meaning to it and thereby are ruled by it. What if we had no such measurement? Perhaps it wouldn’t matter what we did in a prescribed amount of time, just that we did it. We could choose to wallow aimlessly in our measure-less life or put ourselves to good use. It’s up to us. Yet our conditioned selves will decidedly be at its mercy. But that’s ok because we are all in it together. Time leaves no one behind.
“There’ll be two dates on your tombstone
And all your friends will see ’em,
But the thing that really matters
Is the little dash between ’em.”
Life has no purpose. *Your* life has whatever purpose you can imbue it with.
Thank you for writing!
So, what if one doesn’t taunt grizzlies, but just goes to find them and look at them, occasionally and accidentally from a closer distance than originally intended…
Thank you for this series. I have greatly enjoyed reading your writing this month.
Long-time reader, first-time commenter: by coincidence, your 20-year Whatever anniversary month happened to fall on the month of my 50th birthday, so while I would have enjoyed this great month of posts regardless of when they occurred, they were extra-fun for me because of that timing. This one is a great finish. Thanks for your writing, online and in print!
Great capper to this wonderful series, John! I thoroughly enjoyed it!
Greg: quote from Hunter Thompson
Lee: quatrain by Kevin Welsh
(Developed a Thing about citing sources in college, never got over it.)
Perfect capper to a wonderful series. Thanks for writing this, John!
There are more things, Horatio, …
This has thus far felt like a musing on a point much further in the journey that is life than I currently am. It is of special note to me having turned 30 this year to read on what life is like roughly 20 years on from that point. It is also an interesting reflection for me to consider what changes the past few decades have brought for me.
Specifically speaking of time: I don’t think I can be as existentialist about it as you.
I enjoy not knowing specifically what is going to happen to me in the future, my personal beliefs mean that all I can be sure of is that there is a limited time in the state I am currently in. Time is what I make of it. Once or twice I’ve had an afternoon that felt like years. I’ve also seen a year fly by in what felt like weeks. Time being a human perception, it is subject to the same weaknesses as other human created abstractions. We either agree to play by the rules or rebel against them.
Again I contrast my early point in the journey with your further along position. I don’t know if I will still be shaking my fist at the sky defying the universe to correct me in the future. It excites me to find out.
Some days, I’m a fan of Bill Maher, some days not, but he did say one of my all time favorite quotes on life and this essay put me in mind of it – “Just ask yourself if who you’d rather be: Jim Morrison or Van Morrison – either is fine.”
The Mozart connection obliges me to post a link to Monty Python’s “Decomposing Composers”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjWPXybVjYE
Speaking about Gbears,
Coming home from Butte Medows the other day I was
riding with a friend and there he was a
Gbears strolling across the road
Gbears, HDs, Mtn roads.
playing with my Great Grandchildren.So many places trigger memory’s of the people I love.
You have to know that you are the reason that everything exist. Without you it doesn’t have to be.
So many things I want to do, if I live to be ,102 like my
Grandmother did it will be way to short nonetheless. 😎😎😎
Funny you mention Mozart. I grew up watching and re-watching Amadeus, and regardless of its historical inaccuracy (as far as WE know), it made me think a lot about what we leave behind. Over time, I came to the following conclusion: What we do in our lives matters, because we impact the people around us. We are all the sum of the people who came before; not just the “greats”, not just our family, but everyone.
Every kind or harsh word has the opportunity to adjust the course of a person’s life, and that causes them to adjust the course of other people’s lives. So, when my body’s mineral content is helping feed a tree a hundred years from now, no one may remember my name or who I was, but the impact of my life is still there, albeit in maybe just a tiny way.
Kidding! Good piece, John. Until my life completes its ballistic trajectory, I’ll try to enjoy the view and find some meaning.
Time is a storm and we are all lost in it.
-William Carlos Williams
Or, as Marcus Aurelius put it: “No one can lose either the past or the future – how could anyone be deprived of what he does not possess? The present moment is the only thing of which anyone can be deprived, as this is the only thing he has and he cannot lose what he has not got.”
Five comments up from this one. Time stamp is 1:57pm.
“Does this mean I was wasting my time before that age? No, it means that whatever was required for me to create, and be in a place and time where my novels could be published, took place in that time. No time was wasted, because I was becoming the person who could write novels that people wanted to read.”
Thank you for all your thoughts this month, and especially for this one.