The years teach much which the days never know.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Time is curious. It is the most insubstantial of fabrics—impalpable, immaterial, invisible and ever elusive—and yet inescapably real.
Like a barren plain, time is flat and featureless.
The natural world gives time some structure. The turning of the earth about its axis gives us night and day, and the tilting of the earth’s axis gives us the seasons. The longest cycle of all is the earth’s journey around the sun, something that we are about to celebrate.
Humans, never content with nature, have added new landmarks to time’s endless uniformity. We name the seasons and divide them up into months; we name these months and divide them up into days; we name the days and give each day twenty-four hours; and each one of these hours carries with it a customary activity—eating, sleeping, working, playing.
Humans simply cannot abide the emptiness of time. We cannot tolerate time’s continuity, time’s running ever onward, forward, never pausing, never returning, time’s endless movement into the infinite future. All this makes us uncomfortable.
Thus we try to make time cyclical. As we are pushed along, we stick posts in the ground to mark our passing, and try to separate each one of these posts by the same stretch of ground. We go through the year marking the same periodic holidays and private anniversaries. The new year is our universal benchmark, the measuring post by which we all orient ourselves.
Since time is featureless, it is purely arbitrary where we place this marker. We could, if we wanted, chose to regard March 1st or September 27th as the New Year. And isn’t it absurd that we try to divide something continuous, like time, into discrete elements, like years? Isn’t it silly that we think 2016 transforms itself into 2017 in one instant, instead of gradually fading one to the other as time rolls along?
But we need structure. We need landmarks in the barren expanse to remind us how far we have gone, and how far we have to go. This is why New Year’s Eve is valuable: it gives us the chance to pause and reckon up what has come to pass, what was good, what was bad, and what we could do to preserve the good and shed the bad. It gives us the opportunity to delineate, however vaguely, the arc of our lives.
Things invisible day by day reveal themselves in this wider perspective. A mass of senseless trivialities, taken together, can reveal a design and purpose that lay buried under daily cares.
Life must be lived moment to moment; but these moments, so ordinary and unremarkable, can manifest stories of the deepest significance. These stories are our lives, viewed from afar, and we need to reread these stories every once in a while to keep ourselves on the right track.
Have a happy near year, everyone.