As humans, we have very little control over the passage of time. Numerous works, both popular and academic, have explored this condition of human existence. Indeed, according to some points of view, our powerlessness against time is a foundational component of our human psychology, affecting every aspect of our daily lives. We celebrate the passage of time with festivals and holidays while simultaneously obsessing over its insistence as we measure and organize to capture every passing second. Nevertheless, regardless of our carefree enjoyment or anxious calculating, time continues to pass unchanged. Because of the unidirectional linearity of time, as humans, we must deal with the reality of impermanence. In its largest scale, impermanence refers to our limited lifespans, but it finds its way into our everyday life as well (such as in the impermanence of things, relationships, or the status quo), resulting in anxiety we tend to project through abstraction. In many instances, we respond merely to the idea of impermanence rather than its reality as though they were the same.
Humans have coped with this reality in various ways throughout our existence. Memory, for instance, is a method by which we overcome our linearity in time, allowing us to access and relive the past or forecast it into the future (though we call this “imagination”). Nonetheless, memory is also subject to impermanence. Along with everything else, time erodes memory; memory fades with advancing years and ultimately evaporates with death. To combat this condition—to immortalize thoughts, feelings, and existence against the temporality of time—humans developed methods to record their experiences in word, image, song, and text. Indeed, the subjects and disciplines of the humanities are themselves a weapon against the omnipresent villain of time. In a certain light, they are physical manifestations of the metaphysical concept we call memory.
For some, time is not a villain but an ally, slowly erasing undesirable things, events, and traditions. For such, memory is a two-edged sword. While it defends our existence from erasure, it simultaneously keeps alive what we might long to forget, continually bringing it into the present. This is as true for individuals as it is for civilizations. Conflicts between various groups arise as memory—either physical or metaphysical—persists as a result of the efforts of one group but against the preferences of another. In such cases, the disapproving group frequently aids time in its effort to conquer memory.
Want to explore more?
Time, memory, and impermanence are widely discussed in every culture throughout the world. Indeed, this is a major tenet of faith in many religions. Here are some resources that will help you dig a little deeper.
- Walt Whitman, There was a Child Went Forth Every Day
- Lyn Hejinian, constant change figures
- Anna Akhmatova, Memory of Sun
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, Time Long Past
- Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, To Memory
- Henry Van Dyke, Time Is
- Thomas Hood, I Remember, I Remember
- Sylvia Plath, Sonnet: To Time
- Ezra Pound, In a Station of the Metro
Questions to Consider
- In what ways are your faced with conflicts surrounding impermanence in your own life?
- How has memory been a coping mechanism for you in overcoming the anxiety of impermanence?
- How is time a fundamental component of human existence?
- How are the humanities a protection against the eroding effects of time?