I’ve always assumed humans know nothing about time. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get myself to act accordingly.
Our egocentric world-view encourages us to believe that time ages along a biological pathway, with birth and death constantly exchanging places in cyclical motion, turning old into new into old into new etc etc. We track our lives, and thus history, against a checklist of “rites of passage,” which vary by culture, but invariably include the creation and demise for all. In between the events that define then and now, the pace of the day beats at a rate only understood by our senses: the pace of my iPod tracks, the calm touch of pen against paper, the slow waft of toasted bread, the words a-p-p-e-a-r-i-n-g o-n-e b-y o-n-e on my computer screen, the taste of strawberries after a harsh bitter. Emotion and intellect overlay the experience, telling you whether to savor the moment (in which case life speeds up) or to get the hell out (of course, in those situations, painfully slow ticking clock time takes over).
With memory, the day to day fades into fast-forward, rewind, blurred images, re-recorded in your own voice. Maybe this is just me, but when I think back to an experience, I can’t see myself and possibly more interesting, the voices and figures of others are combined into a hodgepodge of characters, understood by my mood and perception of the event. And these mini-reel memories only take on their right place in mind’s time when aligned against larger rites of passage. So the “oh, that happened after my bat mitzvah but before my first kiss.” That said, a painful childhood memory can seem closer in time, closer to the current version of you than your haunt at the grocery store 2 months ago.
Speaking of 2 months ago, I was at a lecture by some guy (Note: look up his name and give him proper credit) who recently wrote a book about the financial crisis (narrows my search down to 200,000?). He essentially made the argument that despite all “rational” applications of economic models and forecasts, investors were far more likely to make decisions based on their recent experience than the amalgamated data corrected for error and emotion and entropy and … Having just conducted marketing interviews for a project, I can attest to the ease with which current / recent / favorable experiences come to mind more clearly and more often than others. And forget marketing — the taste of that nutella gelato I got in France 2 years ago (YUM, couldn’t find the place again, still devastated) is more recent and fresh and part of my memory than the cut on my leg shaving from last night. We have no tolerance for remembering pain, emotional or physical (or at least I don’t). Instead we repress and compartmentalize and whatever other freudian terminology you want to use — point is, the memory will not stick.
So financiers, with optimism inflated by recent past, made irrational decisions that collectively spiral alongside outrageous consumer spending into the big black dark mess that was 2008, 2009 and parts of now.
This got me thinking more generally, and here comes the convoluted logic: If the past creates the future, does the present create the past? If our understanding of history and past events informs our predictions of the future (and hence our actions, leading to a future), doesn’t our present understanding of history, guided by modern values and biases, determine how we view the past? And by transitive logic, if the present creates the past, then the present also creates the future. Right?
This speaks to the whole mantra of history repeating itself. And maybe the only way to break a cycle of error, if possible, is to fundamentally and simultaneously change the present, our understanding of the past and our vision for the future. Small task order, clearly. And maybe there is no need and I’m just an alarmist, but sometimes, amid creepingly random deja vu, I fear I might be living a faded memory that has been recycled through the new-old cauldron one too many times.