Time is…

A river. We navigate it in our boats, having some minor ability to resist the currents but ultimately bound ever forward by the waves. Perhaps the river leads to a tranquil sea, or perhaps a violent waterfall– we’ll never know ’til we reach the end. One of the features of the river is that there is water ahead– the future– and water behind– the past– and the water underneath the boat is only a fleeting fraction of the total system.

A thread. In more than one sense of the word. The linear, one-dimensional nature of the thread captures the immovable momentum of time, and at the same time, this thread is the fabric of history. Like the river, any single point in the thread is infinitesimal, surrounded before and behind by the vast unknowable what-is-to-come and what-has-been.

A moment. Like the river, except now the boat is anchored down in one present moment, and it’s the water and the land which are moving. This is an enlightened perspective, acknowledging that there will never come a day which is “the future”, nor has there ever been a day which was “the past”. There is only the Now.

A predator. “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 mountains down.” Of course you already know the answer to this cunning riddle of Tolkien. Ultimately everything which has a beginning, has an end, and in time it will fade from all memory.

An arrow. The arrow metaphor emphasizes fate and momentum. This is a non-deterministic perspective: the dart is already released; there’s no recalling it, or changing its path. The arrow also symbolizes speed. Years fly by in a second while fate works its course.

A spacetime dimension. Relative to a fixed origin and coordinate system, points have three spatial coordinates. Time adds sophistication to this model by adding a fourth coordinate, thus it is the fourth dimension. But while particles trace exotic paths in the first three dimensions, everything has an awful unchanging constant velocity in the fourth. (Things get more complicated when the theory of relativity is factored in!)

Money. Through this lens, the days of our lives are an allowance we invest, for profit or ruin. Every moment is an opportunity for restless wealth-building. If only you could live forever, you could eventually be the wealthiest person in the world!

A race. The more you do, the more is left to do; this is the busy man’s metaphor. Pink Floyd sang: “You run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking… Racing around to come up behind you again… The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older… Shorter of breath and one day closer to death!”

A prison. This is simultaneously the prisoner’s metaphor, and the metaphor of the man who is truly free. There’s too much time and you struggle to fill it all. At first glance, this is the polar opposite of the “race” perspective– but on closer inspection, they’re two different ways of dealing with the same root poison: lack of “right action”, lack of knowing what is the one thing you need to do.

A gift. In any case, time is a precious gift. We enjoy the experience of the river. We marvel at the beautiful tapestries woven from the thread. We live our lives in the moment, the Now. The predator devours the old so that the new can have a chance. The arrow guides us swiftly toward our ultimate destinies. Spacetime analysis gives us an intellectual understanding of the cosmos. We fill the world with lofty wealth using the time we are given. Even the race and the prison serve to make us stronger, conditioning us until we are ready at last to do what we really need to do.


Ten Metaphors for…