Time Isn’t a Thief

Because I was watching a bunch of songs from Patty Gurdy YouTube recommended the song Mad as a Hatter by Larkin Poe. Larkin Poe is a pair of sisters, and Mad as a Hatter is about their grandfather’s mental illness. It’s not a great song, but it’s got catchy elements:

There’s a line in it which really cought my attention, though:

I know what time is
Time is a thief.
It’ll steal into bed
And rob you while you sleep.

Now, I should preface my remarks by saying that I know what’s meant—people’s powers, such as memory, eyesight, etc. tend to diminish with age, though gradually enough that one doesn’t notice, and in older age one is not able to do the things one was able to in one’s youth. And indeed, this is difficult to deal with. That’s not what I’m talking about when I say that time isn’t a thief. It is quite true that those of us who survive to old age will have weaker eyes and slower memories than we did when we were young. These changes can be attenuated, but cannot be prevented.

To quote Master Splinter in the movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, death comes for us all.

It’s just that death comes quickly for some and slowly for others.

But time is still not a thief.

The question is one of fundamental orientation, or, if you prefer, the fundamental question of what a human being is.

The idea that time is a thief comes from the idea that there’s a “true” us which we grow into and then eventually lose. It conceives of human beings as self-sufficient beings which merely inhabit the world for a time. Thus the limits which come from being in the world are limits imposed upon the independent creature and frustrate the fullness of its being. The prime of one’s life—when experience and youthful vigor are at their mutual maximum—is thus the time when the human being is least limited by the world.

This is, of course, exactly backwards. It places human beings in the position of being little Gods and makes completely unintelligible why they’re born or die. People don’t bother themselves much with the problems of being born since it’s too convenient, though this is one of the things which a bit of navel gazing would actually help with. They’re very troubled, however, by how growing old and dying makes no sense.

By contrast, if a human being is a creature who did not make himself, every moment of his life is, therefore, a gift. To be born is a gift, to grow stronger and quicker of wit throughout childhood is a gift, and to still be around dispensing wisdom and doing what one can do in old age is a gift. It is true that time gives far more in one kind during a person’s youth and gives those gifts of strength and memory far less during old age. But they are still far more than nothing, which is the right thing to compare them to.

This is where the older wisdom of the idea of the seasons of one’s life comes in. We are given youthful vigor in our youth but not in our old age; it is right, therefore, to make good use of youthful vigor in our youth, and then as we age to turn to making use of the wisdom and knowledge we’re given in our old age. The young and the old complement each other. Wisdom without vigor cannot do anything, while vigor without wisdom cannot do anything worthwhile.

Our modern rejection of the seasons of life and strict separation of people by age has resulted in old people being warehoused until they die while the young are busy wasting their youth. And in both cases people who are not Gods are miserable because real life can’t help but constantly point this out to them. (Which is why Sartre said that hell is other people—encountering other people proves to us that we didn’t create ourselves.)

So while growing old is not easy, time is not a thief. Time is a giver. It just gives us different things at different times.

The alternative is hell.

Quite literally.

Most of Life is Unknown

We live so awash in stories and news that we get a very skewed perspective on how much of real life is know to more than a few people and God. What got me thinking about this was watching the following song:

It was the theme song used by a sketch comedy group at the university I went to for my undergraduate degree. They were called Friday Night Live (as an homage to the TV show of similar name) and would put on a show about three times a semester. They had apparently been hugely popular when they started, which was at least a few years before I attended. I was in the rival sketch comedy group, Pirate Theater. At the beginning of my freshman year the attendance at our shows was lower than that of Friday Night Live, but by the end of my senior year the positions had reversed. Our audiences were 3-4 times larger and theirs were smaller even than our audiences had been in my freshman year.

A few years ago I ran into someone who was currently a student at the university and I asked about the shows. He said that Pirate Theater was still reasonably popular but Friday Night Live no longer existed. In fact, he had never even heard of it.

There had been a reasonably friendly rivalry between the two shows, and it turned out that our efforts brought success, in a sense. I don’t think that any of us pirates wanted to kill of Friday Night Live, and ultimately I suspect that it was the quality of their writing which did them in. For whatever reason (I never wrote sketches for FNL, so I couldn’t say what it was like to do so), Pirate Theater managed to attract far more of the skilled writers on campus. It also didn’t help that FNL insisted on having an intermission and hiring a local band to play in it. I think in all the time I was there—and I didn’t miss an FNL show all four years—they had one band that I didn’t leave the auditorium to get away from. Really, really cheap bands tend to be so inexpensive for a reason.

As you might imagine, I was never alone outside the doors when the band was playing. And they were always ear-hurtingly loud, too. Adding injury to insult, I suppose.

Towards the end of my senior year, there were probably less than a hundred people attending the Friday Night Live shows. The total number of people who saw their trajectory for those four years I watched it was not very large; the number who remember it now is probably much smaller. And yet the actors did work on their sketches, however little humor was in them. The “turrets family” where the “joke” was that there was a lot of yelling and cussing may not have been entertaining to watch, but it’s no easier to memorize unfunny lines, or to say them at the right time when you’re live on stage. (There was at approximately one of those per show, for all four years, by the way.)

One of the actors was limber and would do physical comedy with a folding chair, getting stuck in it. It wasn’t brilliant physical comedy, and (due to the lack of skilled writing) never really fit into the sketches it was in; one could see it coming a mile away as the sketches it was used in were basically an excuse to do the wacky chair antics. But someone did write the sketch, and people memorized it, and the actor did twist himself through a chair on stage which is not an easy thing to do. And I do have to say that the final time he did it—which was the last FNL show I attended since he graduated the same year I did—was actually kind of funny because it was actually a protracted goodbye dance with the chair, complete with sad music and longing glances.

 

This was all very real; people put real work, went through real happiness and sadness, and now it is mostly forgotten. That is ultimately the fate of (almost) all human endeavors. This was captured quite well, I think by Percy Blythe Shelley in his poem Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Most things fade from memory far faster, of course. How many people now remember more than a few fragments of Friday Night Live’s sketches? I don’t think I remember more than a few fragments of the Pirate Theater sketches which I wrote, let alone those I merely performed in. I do have a DVD with a collection of the video sketches we did (many of which I’m in), but it’s been quite some time since I watched it.

It may well be longer until I watch it again. In the intervening decade and a half, I’ve gotten a profession, married, bought a house, had three children, published three novels, made a YouTube channel with over 1,973 subscribers, and a whole lot more. As much a I value my memories of my college days, I don’t want to go back in the way that video takes one back.

But the thing is, that’s not a strength. I just don’t have the time and energy for it. But all the things I’ve done since which so occupy me now will also fade in time. Eventually I will die; eventually this house will fall down or be demolished; eventually my children will die. Nothing has any permanence within time.

So the only hope we have is for permanence outside of time. There’s a great metaphor, which Saint Augustine uses in his Confessions, of God, at the end of time, gathering up the shattered moments of our lives and putting them together as a unified whole. And that’s really the only hope we have for any of our lives to be real.