The proper proportions for past, present and future

Opinion: Columns

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By John Hubbuch

Some physicists tell us that time in deep space doesn't really exist. In the absence of motion and matter there is no time. Think of the tree falling in the forest — without a tree or a forest.

We humans exist and we move. We breathe. Our hearts beat. We go places. So for us there is time. In fact we are obsessive about it. Watches, cellphones and calendars abound. We have to get to work by 9.

Because we have these wonderful organic computers in our heads, we are able to separate time into the past, the present and the future. We can think about a family vacation 10 years ago, the vacation we are on now, or the one we might take with our grandchildren when they're a bit older.

I am intrigued about how much time a healthy, happy person should divide his thinking between these categories. I'm going to hire a programming nerd to help me with the math of an algorithm that will solve this problem. And I will give it to the world for free. You're welcome.

I'm wary about spending too much time thinking about the past. My experience is that it's often not remembered correctly, and while it was great to be able to ride your bike everywhere without fear, black people were being lynched, Frank Sinatra was a misogynist, and Red Skelton was not funny. I do like history and philosophy, so I'm plugging 20 percent into the algorithm for the past. Maybe the past can help us in the present or future. 

Maybe.

Jump ahead to the future. This is a tricky one. If your present life is bad, and you believe in heaven, you might spend lots of time thinking about the eternal future. But if you have a good life and believe the chances of an afterlife are equivalent to being eaten by a shark in the desert, you probably avoid thinking too much about the future. Oh, and there is the part where no one really knows what might happen in the future. The future also has just a hint of dread. So I'm putting the future down for 20 percent.

That leaves 60 percent for the present. That should give me plenty of time to smell the roses. There is a definitional problem. The present lasts only a nanosecond. The second before is the past. The second after is the future. So I believe "the present" is a year before and the year after "Now." That allows time to think and mourn the death of a loved one, and to think about quitting drinking and/or finally going to the Grand Canyon. A year seems about right. Prehistoric peoples lived on a yearly seasonal calendar, based on growing food, and things turned our pretty sweet for their distant prodigy. Us. (See Peapod.)

Author's note: Since writing this column I observed a most vivid shade of floral purple, and I spent 45 minutes fooling around with my sweet, sweet 20-month-old granddaughter Hazel. Although I can conjure both of these experiences in the past, and project both of them into an anticipated similar experience in the future, there really is something about the here and now. The past and future are derivative of the present. 

I may need to rework this algorithm.

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