"This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down."
I’ve always had a fascination with this riddle, nestled in one of my favorite chapters of “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien. The main character, Bilbo, is having a battle of wits and riddles with the creature Gollum in an effort to avert his death. The aforementioned riddle was the penultimate question that almost stumped Bilbo as he inadvertently answers correctly with “Time! Time!”
In this sense, time is grimly personified as a monster, an executioner, and an equalizer. All symbols of power are at the mercy of temporal bonds. It’s a frightening and abasing thought that has remained with me since my days in elementary school, interpolated with my thoughts at the dead of the night and interwoven throughout the years.
As my days as a teenager wanes and my subsequent twenties waxes in the future, this idea of time has become more prevalent in my mind. Recently I was in my favorite class on medieval history when the subject of time cropped up. My professor asked us how we thought a person of the medieval era would have conceptualized time and how we perceive time. The boundary conditions and markers for an average medieval European person revolved around the harvest for their daily lives and the Church and its holidays on a grander scale. Days were dictated not by a global clock, nor did they focus on a calendar. The sun and seasons guided them as well as religious holidays that broke up the mundanity of their lives. In the modern day, there is a more codified version of time, with the entire world adhering to hours and a global synchronization of clocks. Though there are still a few recognized calendars, many adhere to the Gregorian calendar. It’s amazing to understand the shift in the understanding of time, as it has become a standard amongst everyone.
What I also find amazing is the number of ways that you can think about time. For me, on a daily level, I find myself marking time by due dates, like the one for this article, my work shifts, the amount needed to study, and the amount that has been wasted on procrastination. I’m constantly wishing away time, waiting for a future that seems more promising. On the other hand, on a more holistic level, I mark the years by my accomplishments, by milestones, and by the gradual addition of responsibilities and independence as well as the constant loss of past comforts and youthful support. The idea of becoming twenty, of growing up, of having to handle everything and starting a career and existing is daunting. There are moments that make me want to slow down or reverse time. And then there are moments, moments that are never long enough, like winning an award, going home for a break from school and seeing my parents after months, or just lying in bed being tightly embraced forgetting worries and stress. These are moments that I want to just pause, to hold constant.
But the arrow of time always points in one direction. It is asymmetrical. We are birthed, exist, and then cease to exist in a sense we can understand. As far as we know, the process is not inverted. In physics, we learn that the universe is expanding towards greater chaos and messiness on the axis of time and to go back in the negative direction of that axis means to return to the conception of the universe and all that has ever existed. However, we also learn that time isn’t the same in all frames. Space and time are linked together and in different frames time behaves slower or faster with respect to the other frames.
On a conscious level, we are constantly bending and changing our perception of time. It seems like a universal law that a two-hour lecture will always feel longer than binging your favorite TV show for two hours. Unwanted experiences will feel longer than desired ones. We squander the good and wish away the bad.
As I approach my upcoming twenties, I realize time isn’t as beast like as the riddle from "The Hobbit" purports it to be. I don’t think time is bad. It’s not evil and it doesn’t take. I find that it’s rather giving. It gives and it gives all of itself. We just aren’t always ready to fully accept what it has to offer. Before my grandfather died, he told my dad that he was completely content. He had done everything he wished to do. I don’t have any of the answers now or an exact idea of how to accomplish my goals, but I strive to work towards the completeness that my grandfather had before he passed away.