A cat, no matter how meticulous and finicky, nor a dog, no matter how smart, ever check their watch ten times a day — not even once in a lifetime. Birds migrate thousands of miles every year and have an incredibly precise sense of the changing of seasons, but nary a computer or clock to track how time flies. Tempus fugit, as they say.
Early humans noted the passage of time by the play of day and night, as also by the changing patterns of the sun, moon, and stars. Sundials date back 3,500 years; sand-filled hourglasses existed over 1,500 years ago.
Today we seem attached by invisible umbilical cords to chronographs and atomic clocks that capture fractions of a second. Only humans obsess about time, whether in seconds, minutes, and hours, years, or eternity; not to mention fractions like milli, micro or nano seconds.
The passage of time is cruel. We are the only animal that lies about our age or feels the need to do so. And only humans have created religions that promise everlasting eternal life, with its never-ending delights, or the eternal fires of damnation. Why? As a sordid attempt to deny our age-associated diminishing skills at everything?
We celebrate birthdays as markers of everlasting life? We ignore that each passing year — day, hour…moment – reminds us that time is running out. “Audh ghatyae dinus rainaray…” Night and day, this life is wasting away. (Guru Granth, p. 13). Commonsense affirms that only an unreal metaphoric life is eternal. Time marches on and runs out. Thus, our mortality bestows challenge and quality to our lives.
If a life has no end, demands of quality can be deferred and choices pushed aside; in life without end there is no urgency to imperatives of meaning and value. In an eternal life there is no overwhelming hunger for meaning.
But there is a way to eternity that also addresses the purpose of life. Our past merges with the future through continuity of blood lines, community and, more importantly, through the work that we do, through issues and events that define us in this life, the societies that we create; the causes for which we live and die. Matters which we have valued more than life itself. This is the way to progress and immortality.
Open any page of Sikh history for an object lesson in such events and happenings. In fact, since its inception, Sikhi has been a powerhouse in the cause of human development.
Is mine then a call to the future or is this a step back into the hoary past? Past, present and future are inexorably intertwined. My call is to stand solidly in the present, rooted comfortably in the soil of the past, resolutely facing the future. That’s how the past becomes prologue to the future. Forget not that the past is dead and that the future is yet unborn, the moment of the present is ours to shape and breathe life into our future.
It is important in life to look ahead, but also to look back. Perhaps at my stage in life I look back just as much, if not a tad more, than forward into the future. Peering more often into the future would make me an optimist; if I largely crane my neck to reclaim the past, then I am surely a pessimist. On some days, the swinging pendulum has a measurable bias; it need not be age-dependent. Remember that one phase lengthens while the second progressively shortens and one day the pendulum will swing no more.
Awareness of time, efforts to control its flight and add meaning and purpose to it seem uniquely human traits. Yet, time is neither our mind’s slave, nor its invention. Time is not a prison that can hold the human mind. There are myriad ways to measure time, but none to slow it or stop it – not in this world, not in this life.
Finally, at the end of life when the clock runs out, Gurbani posits a challenge to each one of us. It asks, what footprints will you leave in the sands of time (Eh sareera merya iss jug meh aye ke kya tudh karam kamayya? p. 917).
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