The Invariability of Time and the New Year

Time has an invariable hold on us, but, thanks to the power of perspective, we're able to control time in small ways to find hope and make positive change in our lives.

Jan 03, 2023

The Invariability of Time and the New Year

Time has an invariable hold on us. As many of my fellow humans, I have a complicated relationship with time. From our place in the universe, time is expansive, unfathomable. For us humans, this expansiveness is challenging to grasp, and the reality becomes surpassed by our perception of time: Time is confining and frightening in its limitations. Our whole lives revolve around the awareness that the life we know will at some point end. Adding to the complexity, our understanding of time is heavily influenced by social factors, beliefs, language, age, societal frameworks, like work. At the cusp of the new year, it is a unique time in western culture where reflection on both the past and the future are built-in and encouraged. I say “unique” because the busyness of our world is determined to discourage moments of reflection. Most importantly, the new year is a time filled with hope—an occasion to start anew—where time becomes malleable. An opportunity to direct or redirect where we’d like to go and who we’d like to become. 

In the Live Science article, “What is Time?,” writer Paul Sutter defines “time” as “the apparent progression of events from past to future.” I love the word “apparent” within this definition. “Apparent” alludes to the idea that time is a perceptual phenomenon; one that only appears to be true. The interesting part about the word “apparent” is that it can be defined as both “able to be seen or understood” and “seeming to exist or to be true.” In Sutter’sdefinition of time, it most likely refers to the latter. Yet, thinking of Sutter’s definition against both of the Cambridge Dictionary’s definitions of “apparent” point to the paradoxical relationship we have with time: Time seems to exist, and, because this seeming existence is recorded as we move from past to future, we can understand it (though we know this is often untrue). During the new year and other important life events, time in all its contradictions becomes a focal point and catalyst for change. Something very much real. Something very much capable of inspection and dissection in search of understanding. In the hopes this understanding might give us some insight to the larger “why” of our lives and possibly a glimpse into the future.

Each unknown step in the future becomes immediately visible for a moment of the present before it just as instantly becomes assigned to the past. This continual progression from future to present to past becomes a communal layer of time that we come to know as our life. In [The Many Daughters of Afong Moy]( by Jamie Ford (see book review), there is a beautiful scene where one of the characters, Faye, is speaking to a Buddhist monk, Shi, about time, (re)birth, and the interconnectedness of life:

“‘If you plant an acorn,’ [Shi] said, ‘it may grow to become an oak tree. Yet there is no acorn within that wooden body. Has the acorn been reborn as a tree? Or does the acorn grow to be something else entirely? It’s my belief that the acorn and the tree are an idea, spread out over an abstraction of time. And if that new tree, when fully grown, drops one acorn or one hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand, that idea keeps progressing as this thing we call life.’”

Shi’s notion of life as a boundless idea across time resonates with the malleability that our lives and time acquire during the new year. During this time, one year officially ends and another begins. At this intersection, we have the opportunity to change the trajectory of our life, i.e. “New Year, New Me.” Unlike an acorn, humans have some autonomy to determine our next form, some control over the idea of who we are. This, of course, is also determined by the power and privilege of our social identity. Time, and its perception, can be evaluated and shaped, and, therefore, influences the construction of our past, present, and future.

The new year is time for rest, reflection, and contemplation. At this juncture, time slows down. I can reflect on who I was, who I am, and who I want to be. There is immense freedom in choosing to explore, to decide on growth, and to turn vision into reality. Yet, no matter how much I grow, the acorn kernel idea that birthed me is still a part of me. Now, I am in the process of metaphorically spreading acorns along the way, small evidences of my existence—like this essay or my hair in a random gas station bathroom or the feeling of goodness in another. Here, on the second day of the new year where it feels both the same and new, I have hope. I have a kernel of vision for the future that I will watch grow over the next year until it is difficult to determine where the acorn ends, and the oak’s wooden body begins.