What makes time so wonderful is that it humbles us as well as inspires us. And if we simply recognized each person on social media as a complete human being born into a specific place and a specific time, we might be able to get past so much of what we erroneously label as discourse.
As a professional historian, I never stop thinking about time. Is it linear, is it cyclical, is it progressive, is it just “one damned thing after another”? How does it shape our understanding of events? How does it shape our understanding of moments and epochs and eras and decades? As a Christian humanist, I also never stop thinking about time. How does one understand one’s self within the generations, within the eras, within the moments? Is time more liturgical or linear? Which matters more, the ringing of the church bell or the thud of the iron wheels on the iron tracks? As a conservative, I again never stop thinking about time. What of the past do we need to preserve, conserve, and hone in the present to prepare those in the future? If we take this action today, will our grandchildren’s children condemn us, praise us, or ignore us? As a human being, I am also personally fascinated with time. How quickly do the seasons change? Why does the time between this Christmas and that Christmas get shorter every year? Why have my children grown so quickly? Why did my mother mean one thing to me when I was twenty but a very different thing at age 52? Have I passed my prime? Did I ever really accomplish what I wanted to accomplish? Did my efforts make a difference to the now, or to the tomorrow? Did I honor or dishonor the past and all those who came before me?
I realize in the present day criticisms of social media are worth less than a dime a dozen, but I too worry about how we perceive time in our present day. Why does the Facebook post of this morning shape the rest of our day? Why did it attract so much anger? What about that tweet? How about the thing I looked up on the internet? Can I google it? And, if so, does it make it real? My criticism of the present day is this—it is flat. That is, it makes the world so flat. On social media, a post becomes something almost instantly Manichaean and our responses, almost always, somewhat gnostic, demanding a surety that surely does not really exist. Yet, we pretend it does. Was the post with us or against us? Was it for them or against them? And where exactly do I stand within us and them? Even in our emoji responses, we have barely any real choice. We can like it, we can love it, we can cry over it, or we can get infuriated. At what level on social media, do we ever imagine what the past might say of us? The future, yes, because we know how permanent social media is, but not the past. It seems… well, simply passed.
Over the past several weeks, the questions of time have been everywhere in my life. Driving with my wife and oldest son to New Mexico (from Michigan), I saw family, family grave yards, family churches, family homes, and family land. Time became centered, even in its plurality.
I also encountered a myriad cultures—such as that of the Navajo and the Pueblo—of which I have really only read. In the deserts of the Southwest are the modern peoples, all residing in a delicate balance with a desiccated landscape, and that landscape is not merely horizontal but vertical, reaching back to the nomads, the Anasazi, and the Aztecs of many, many generations ago. Every juniper tree reveals a stark contrast between the soil, in which it clings, and the deep blue sky, to which it reaches. Every building reflects hundreds and thousands of years of traditions as well as innovations. Mesas as well as historical markers populate the landscape. Should it surprise any of us that Huxley made his one anti-modernist reservation in his Brave New World, New Mexico, or that Willa Cather had her aristocrat-hero, Bishop Latour, build his cathedral in Santa Fe, or that Walter Miller placed his one point of certainty—the abbey dedicated to St. Leibovitz—in the brush country near Taos?
In my reading, too, I have been unable to escape (not that I would want to) questions of time. Ray Bradbury’s Green Town books—Dandelion Wine, Farewell Summer, and From the Dust Returned—each attempt to place the human person as well as human culture within the intersections of time and timelessness. In one of the most moving scenes in American literature, a Civil War veteran still alive in 1928 finally understands that he is, for all intents and purposes, a time machine.
“I saw the first puffs of powder smoke.” A dreaming voice. “So many things come back, oh, so many things. I remember songs. ‘All’s quiet along the Potomac tonight, where the soldiers lie peacefully dreaming; their tents in the rays of the clear autumn moon, or the light of the watchfire, are gleaming.’ Remember, remember … ‘All quiet along the Potomac tonight; no sound save the rush of the river; while soft falls the dew on the face of the dead—the picket’s off duty forever!’ … After the surrender, Mr. Lincoln, on the White House balcony asked the band to play, ‘Look away, look away, look away, Dixie land.’ … And then there was the Boston lady who one night wrote a song will last a thousand years: ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.’ Late nights I feel my mouth move singing back in another time. ‘Ye Cavaliers of Dixie! Who guard the Southern shores …’ ‘When the boys come home in triumph, brother, with the laurels they shall gain …’ So many songs, sung on both sides, blowing north, blowing south on the night winds. ‘We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more …’ ‘Tenting tonight, tenting tonight, tenting on the old camp ground.’ ‘Hurrah, hurrah, we bring the Jubilee, hurrah, hurrah, the flag that makes us free …’” The old man’s voice faded. The boys sat for a long while without moving. Then Charlie turned and looked at Douglas and said, “Well, is he or isn’t he?” Douglas breathed twice and said, “He sure is.” The colonel opened his eyes. “I sure am what?” he asked. “A Time Machine,” murmured Douglas. “A Time Machine.” The colonel looked at the boys for a full five seconds. Now it was his voice that was full of awe. “Is that what you boys call me?” “Yes, sir, Colonel.” “Yes, sir.” The colonel sat slowly back in his chair and looked at the boys and looked at his hands and then looked at the blank wall beyond them steadily. Charlie arose. “Well, I guess we better go. So long and thanks, Colonel.” “What? Oh, so long, boys.” Douglas and John and Charlie went on tiptoe out the door. Colonel Freeleigh, though they crossed his line of vision, did not see them go. [Bradbury, Dandelion Wine]
In Stephen King’s latest, If It Bleeds—a collection of four novellas—the second story, the innocuously entitled, “Life of Chuck,” not only celebrates the dignity of the human person, but it also recognizes at a profound level, that when a person leaves this realm, he takes with him an entire universe.
What makes time so wonderful is that it humbles us as well as inspires us. It makes us see the world in vertical and horizontal; it makes us see a person not at any one moment, but at a moment within the context of millions of moments; and, it makes us cognizant that every thing and every tree and every landscape and every building and every mountain and every stream exists now, but also then and then and then. As we cross the continental divide, we approach, we pass, and we look back. The divide does not change, but our perception does, determined by our awareness and our speed. Time works in the same way. One moment slides into the next into the next into the next. We approach, we pass, and we look back. The moment remains, but our perception of it changes.
As Bradbury wrote, each of us is a time machine, and as King writes, each person is a universe, and, quoting and paraphrasing Walt Whitman (who himself was paraphrasing scripture), recognizes that each of us contains multitudes. What we do now matters. What we did then matters. What we do tomorrow matters. It matters to us, to those who came before us, and to those who will come after. As Edmund Burke fully understood, there is, within the essence of us each, a connection to those alive, those dead, and those yet to be born.
So, what does all of this have to do with social media, you might very well and very legitimately be asking. With social media, we live in the moment, and the moment cries out in rage, in fury, and in frustration. Social media flattens everything. We do not see the depths of time, the hidden aspects of a problem, the nuances of the human being; we see the emotion of the moment. Our reason and our rationality become enslaved to the moment in an arrested development of the ego. What should be ephemeral becomes passionate and tangible.
For those old enough to remember, jump back thirty years. When we communicated with persons, we either spoke directly to them, spoke with them on the telephone, or, best of all, wrote them letters. In our letters, we took our time, we “spoke” out loud, and we imagined possibilities. How would the recipient respond to the news we offered them? In our letters, we gave depths to our questions, to our problems, to our potential solutions. In doing so, we acknowledged not only the depths within ourselves but the depths within our recipients. We did not get frustrated when the person failed to reply immediately. Rather, we gave them the benefit of the doubt, believing that the person simply needed time to communicate his (or her) ideas in response. I will admit, I was once a very proud letter writer, taking days to answer one letter, and sometimes replying with pages and pages of thoughts. If my recipients thought my letters were over the top, they simply stopped corresponding. Otherwise, they responded in kind. One of my greatest possessions—to this day—is my boxes of letters from college and graduate school.
Once email became the norm, speed replaced thoughtfulness, and impatience became the norm. It’s been twenty minutes since I emailed, what is XXX doing!?
When we studied, we did not “google” something or check Wikipedia, we checked the card catalogue. And from the first book’s footnotes, we checked the next book’s footnotes and the next book’s and so on. Our search was, indeed, horizontal, but it was also wonderfully vertical as well, moving left to right but also from the shallows to the heights. If we loved Dandelion Wine, we looked up a biography of Ray Bradbury. If we loved the biography of Ray Bradbury, we looked through the notes to find Bradbury’s smaller essays and articles. And in his articles and his essays, we found the man, revealed and true and good.
Now imagine meeting a friend for lunch—not just the sacramental breaking of bread in fellowship but the possibilities of worlds created in conversation—and then imagine being only able to respond with a heart emoji, or weeping emoji, or anger emoji. While social media has its benefits, it has for many of us replaced real human connection with superficiality.
And yes, there’s good in social media, too. The sharing of pictures, of news, etc. And yes, I have made some serious friendships through social media.
But when those friendships have flourished, they have done so because we have taken the relationship beyond the mere “introduction” that social media so effectively offers.
And this brings us back to time. Time makes our world real, and it makes our moments meaningful. It is in time that we love, that we procreate, that we create, that we friend, that we care. It is in time, too, that we frustrate, that we demean, and that we war. Time gives meaning to everything, every moment, every event, and every person.
One of my favorite thinkers of the twentieth century, Pope John Paul II, said that each person is an unrepeatable center of dignity and liberty. This is, to be sure, the essence of Christian Humanism. Perhaps, in our current whirligig—of posts, of emojis, of 240 characters—if we simply stepped back and gave the other members of social media their due as human person, recognizing each person on Facebook or Twitter as a full and complete human being, born into a specific place and a specific time, we might be able to get past so much of what we erroneously label as discourse.
During his all-too-brief life, the insightful conservative, Richard Weaver, once complained about the notion that we would “live in the moment.” What an insult to our ancestors, to our children, and to ourselves, he commented.
We, of course, have all the choice in the world. Let us make even our social relations deep and meaningful and, to be sure, both timeless and full of time.
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The featured image is courtesy of the author.