Time And Life
( Originally Published 1912 )
We spend our years as a tale that is told.--HEBREW POET. Art is long; time is short.—GOETHE.
Man could not have been very long on earth be-fore he began to notice the disproportion between time and the life of each individual. As soon as he began, with earnest purpose, to reflect over the conditions in which he found himself in relation to the world, he must have been impressed by the magnitude of the work to be done, in the mass, and the small part of it possible for each mortal to accomplish in the few years allotted to him for his earthly stay. Prom old Greece and Palestine to new America literature abounds with figurative expressions illustrating the smallness of the individual, as compared with the race, and the brevity of each life, as compared with the vast sweep of time.
Humanity is a great sea; each generation is only a single wave breaking on the shore of time. Unweariedly, and without ceasing, sounds the music of the world; a human life is only one note of the mighty anthem. Time is an endless line; life is only a point. Time is a stream; a life is a bubble briefly floating on the fast flowing river. The course of events is a long winding road over which the race travels in many re-lays. Those on earth, at any given time, can only see a small part of it. After traveling a certain distance, the old generation becomes weary and can go no further. A new generation, taking up the precious load of learning, art, laws, liberty, religion, moves for-ward over its portion of the road. Then it, too, be-comes weary and, handing its load over to a new relay, it finds a quiet inn and lies down to sleep.
Heraclitus saw no permanence in nature. Every-thing moves. Change is the only thing that is change-less. Every visible and tangible object is about to become something else. "Earth dies into water, water into air, air into fire, and so on." His philosophy contains much that is true. It helps picture the life of man. Birth is a new combination of elements al-ready existing. Growth is a readjustment of the same elements. Death is the dissolution and redistribution of the same elements present in birth and growth. The same is true in the course of events. History is only a recombination of human thoughts and actions. It is an endless series of dissolving and resolving views. Each civilization is formed of the fragments of a previous civilization under changed conditions. America is Egypt and Chaldea repeating themselves, using new races, new lands, and new centuries for their material. But amid all the decomposing and recomposing of races and civilizations, moves undisturbed the stately stream of time.
Many centuries ago Marcus Aurelius wrote thus:
"Consider how many physicians are dead that used to knit their brows over their patients; how many astrologers who thought themselves great men by foretelling the death of others; how many philosophers have gone after all their learned disputes about immortality; how many tyrants who managed the power of life and death with as much insolence as if themselves had been superior to death. Consider how many cities have passed away, Helice in Greece, Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy and many others besides. Look upon the astonishing notion of time and eternity. What an immense deal has run out already and how infinite it is still in the future! Consider this, and yon will find three days and three ages come much to the same thing. Your way, therefore, is to manage this minute in harmony with nature and let it be your constant plan to be sound in word' and deed."
Since these words were written, fifty generations have passed across the earth. All have followed the same beaten road. In the intervening centuries, history shows many who struggled for eminence. Those who sat on thrones; who led armies; who mastered the arts; who wrote books; and those who, by any extra-ordinary power of performance, gave their name to eras,—the Charlemagnes, the Napoleons, the Angelos, the Shakespeares, the Luthers,—along with the name-less and numberless multitude, have all vanished from earth.
"The hand of the King that the sceptre hath borne,
The peasant, whose lot was to sow and to reâp;
The saint, who enjoyed the communion of heaven:
The maid on whose cheek, on whose brow, in whose eye,
So the multitude goes, like the flower or the weed
The thought that time is long and the arena for human action great, is full of cheer for a heart wishing and toiling for the triumph of truth and justice. It sometimes comes to our flagging spirits as comes a burst of martial music to an army weary with its long march. Not so the thought that our part in the vast transaction is very small,—only like adding a single grain of sand in building a continent,— and that, long before the final victory is gained, we shall have gone and have been forgotten. Sometimes this comes to the soul as a temporary depression,—as when a bright sky is suddenly storm shrouded. Both thoughts are needed. Thinking of the length of time and the greatness of humanity keeps us from despair; thinking of the brevity of a single life and the insignificance of its work keeps us from vanity.
In the history of a race or a world a year of time may pass with little notice. The changes it may bring are imperceptible. The art and philosophy and religion of a nation, the form and climate, the fauna and flora of a planet remain untouched by the passing of a year. They only yield to influences whose time is measured by centuries and cycles. It is not so in the history of a human life. Within a year, many changes may come. Geologists tell us that the earth has passed through many stages. In its history, races of plants and animals have appeared, grown to maturity, passed into decline, and then become extinct. For these changes, perhaps millions of years were required. But, within a single year, changes may occur in a human life whose importance upon it is equal to that upon the world wrought by influences acting through a thousand centuries. The first twenty years of a mortal's existence mean as much to him and are as significant of his future as all the millions of years of the Palaeozoic Age to our earth. Hear, O Youth, and be wise!
Nature seems to be indifferent to the years. The flight of time does not affect her. The slow process of things seems to give her no annoyance. Perhaps the rocks of the glacial epoch have not lost more than half an inch of their surface within the period of written history. But, back of that period, there was time enough to cut out channels in these rocks hundreds of feet in depth. Everything indicates that nature has had plenty of time in which to do her work and, knowing this, has never been in a hurry. It is other-wise in a life history. There is not so much time given us that we can afford to squander it. Every one who expects to accomplish anything worthy must work while it is day for behold! the night cometh in which no one can work,
The division of time into periods is largely artificial. Nature knows nothing of such terms as Devonian Age and Age of Man; of stone and iron and bronze and gold ages; of the era of Aryan emigration; of the age of Pericles or Augustus; of Christian Fra; of Middle Age and Renaissance. The lake dwellers and cliff dwellers are one to her with the palace dwellers. Mound builders, pyramid builders, cathedral builders and railroad builders all alike are found simply in time. The divisions of history into periods have been made by man for his own convenience. Next Wednesday night there will be nothing in nature to mark the end of the old and the beginning of a new year. Those who will be watching for the change will see no sign of regret or joy in nature, when the moment, so full of interest to them, arrives. No token will give any intimation of the change. There will be no increase of light or darkness; no rising or falling wind; no halt in the motion of the earth: no omen in the sky announcing the going and coming of a year. Time seems to say to man :
"Thou changest, but I am changeless. Thou growest old, but I am never old. To thee, a year may mean much; to me, it means nothing. For a few years thou beholdest the sun by day and the stars by night. I have seen a thousand generations of beings like thee looking on these blazing and glittering wonders. They were here ages before there was any eye on earth to gaze upon them; but, before they were, I was. Thou, O man, mayest well take account of thy passing years, for they are numbered for thee and are not many, but I am that of which they are made and I am infinite."
When in philosophic mood we may sometimes affirm that there is no such thing as chance in our world. There seems to be a net-work of law in whose meshes every event is caught and held. Even the human will, at times, seems hopelessly ensnared and loses the power of independent action, Caught in the unyielding grasp of fate or carried forward by the resistless current of events, there are times when the individual seems to be only a passive and helpless spectator. When in this mood all things seems to have been pre-determined from the beginning. The last, existed by necessity in the first event.
"With earth's first clay they did the last man knead,
But there is much of life that falls outside of this form of philosophy. We cannot always feel that we are passive and irresponsible. The sense of obligation sometimes weighs heavily upon us. Sometimes we repent something done or left undone and remorse follows in the trail of sin. Practically, the will has a great arena in which its actions are freee. Our choices determine our destiny. Thus man cannot become pure fatalist and indifferent to the flight of time. His actions count for something. His part is to make the best possible use of all his years. With the poet of old, many times he should pray : "So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom."
If we were sure that all our being was included in the word "material" the case would be very simple.
But we are not sure of that. We are indeed partly material and are related to every visible and tangible thing. St. Francis called the sun his brother, the water his sister, the ground his mother, all plants and animals and stones his relations. Doubtless the old Saint of Assisi only intended to signify his own humility and give a naive expression of his affection for all things that he believed God had made. But he unconsciously did more than he intended. He expressed a profoundly scientific truth. When analyzed, it appears that all things are made of the same kind of material. The only difference is in structure and in the mixing and proportion of the ingredients. But, coming to conscious life, there seems to be something present not found elsewhere. We may not attempt to describe it, but there is something not material in man. It thinks; it hopes; it wonders: it lifts him above the plant and animal: it passes beyond the horizon of the seen and measurable and, roaming through boundless space, thinks of God and immortal existence. Thus time can never be the same to a plant or an an animal or a star that it is to mankind. To be a soul is to be superior to years and centuries.
The passing years should thus bring wisdom and a clearer spiritual vision to each individual lire. There can be nothing more pitiable than the spectacle of age descending upon a life discontented with the present, saddened by thoughts of the past, and uncheered by hope of the future. Rising among the mountains far inland, long before it reaches the sea the Nile widens its channel and, at times, overflowing its banks makes Egypt fruitful. Trees and grass and wheat spring up along its course. So the stream of experience should enrich each human life. From its alluvial, flowers of affection to delight, and harvests of truth to bless the world should spring in rich abundance. Alas! for that life which makes its adjacent shores more and more a desert as it nears the great sea. There are some to whom the years bring an increasing hardness and selfishness. Their life is like the bed of a lava-stream, hard, dry and barren. Having gathered no charity, no power of forgiveness from the passing years, they have no generous welcome for the new thoughts, new aspirations, new purposes of the new era, but to the narrowness and ignorance and prejudice of their youth have added the obstinacy of long habit. There are others to whom each year brings increasing wisdom and goodness and love. Age does for them what it does fo a musical instrument;—it refines and mellows their souls making every note of their music true and sweet and pathetic. To them age comes bringing but little regret and no fear. They take counsel with nature and are cheered by her method. Beneath all the mutations wrought by time, they see something abides unchanged. Thus, although the body and all the externals of their life may change, there is that within which is enduring and bids defiance to the assaults of time.
Life is to be measured not so much by its length as by its breadth and depth. A poem that was much read in our youth contains these lines :
"We live in deeds, not years,—in thoughts, not breaths—
The heart of many a young man was stirred by the sentiment contained in these words and the resolution was made that, be the years many or few, they should be made to contain only those thoughts and feelings and deeds which make the present better and the future happier. A life devoted to trifling things need not complain of the shortness of time. Life was much too short for a Christ; it was much too long for a Nero. A life given wholly to sin needs no more time; a life consecrated to goodness deserves all the years of earth and all the cycles of heaven.
Life should be composed of an ascending series. Each experience should introduce us to a higher level giving a clearer and broader view of the world.
In the Vision of Mirza, which so fascinated and yet bewildered and sometimes terrified us in child-hood, there was a bridge of seventy arches reaching across the vale of human misery; beneath this bridge flowed the great tide of eternity, on one side issuing from, on the other entering into an impenetrable mist. The bridge was human life. Over it a great multitude was trying to pass. But it was partly in ruins and many were seen falling through and were swept away by the rushing flood. Each one of the seventy arches represented a year of human existence. Between the first and tenth of the arches the number falling into the black stream was very great. Toward the middle of the bridge the number was smaller, but rapidly in-creased toward the farther end.
Significant and impressive as the vision may be, it is not fully in harmony with the real scene of our world. It omits many great facts of existence. The Dreamer neglected to see what hopes, what inspirations thrill man's soul and what duties and what noble tasks are performed in seventy years. It is better to think of life as a mountain to be ascended, rather than as a valley to be crossed. Each year is a new stage in the ascent lasting from infancy to age. As one after another is reached man should rejoice that he is able to behold more and more of the goodness and beauty of earth and that he is rising nearer and nearer the splendor of heaven.
Standing among the last days of the old year a part of our time may be passed in recalling things that are gone; but, as the new year rapidly draws near, this may give way to expectation of things to come. We may remake the promises unfulfilled and again record our vows of loyalty to all things great and true and holy. Increasing in wisdom, in usefulness, in zeal for human welfare, having a stronger friendship for all the world, seeking happiness only in the path of goodness, we shall find each coming year to be bet-ter than the last. Thus living, time and all its many changes will cease to trouble us, for back of both we shall see the presence of One,
"In whose reign the eternal change
May each new year bring to you all more truth, more love, and more of that happiness which shall outlast the wreck of worlds!