Thinking Humanity in Space and Time

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.

Pensees, Blaise Pascal

People often say, when they look to and beyond the stars in the sky (if they are free from light-pollution), that they see their own insignificance, as little specks of sentience on a small planet around a minor sun. We are deeply awed, and then, usually, we look away and get on with our little lives. We can give and receive, even sometimes enjoy, significance in the little world within our reach, leaving the universe to its indifference to us. In our daily existence the fact that we are tiny in this vastness does not worry our self-confidence away. 

I think one reason for our equanimity in these circumstances is that we are from birth accustomed to living with bigger things than ourselves. My mother, who was not big physically, towered over me when I was small, and it was comfortable. So it was with other grown-ups, and my bed – and even now I do not have the problem of a seven-footer with the ordinary bed. The ceiling was as much out of reach as the sky, and both were objects to me for friendly inspection from a distance – ceilings have interesting patterns of cracks, worthy of imaginative attention, for there are strange beings up above. We get used to being small amongst bigger persons and objects, making our home amongst them, by more or less peaceful negotiation, so having an acceptable or at least a viable existence.

Thus we are trained to live our relative littleness from the beginning. Our amazed reverence for the Universe is a projection on to a nearly infinite screen of a respect for what is big, moving us to admiration but not inevitably crushing us with littleness: we look to Mother and Father, and elder Brother with a comforting trust and respect. This is profoundly and strictly natural to us, harmonious with our given and acquired being. 

Our natural relation to time is different. We do not learn time from our birth as a littleness in comparison with what is bigger. We find it – gradually of course – as so regular a gift that we come to feel it as a constant possession. We wake and we sleep, the time of day is limited by the time of night, but the sun rises again so reliably that we get used to ‘having time’. We have time as variegated and variable continuity. We can only use a moment of time for one thing, and then, that moment is gone, remaining to us only in frail memory, if at all. The ending of happy moments may bring regret, but mostly we move on, for the flow of moments continues, and we are so habituated to diurnal rhythm, evening and morning. We indwell time as a flowing stream.1 Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song. Edmund Spenser It contains and carries change, but so reliably that we can make a go at living with change with courage and hope.2God of grace and God of glory – Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
for the facing of this hour,

New every morning is the love
our wakening and uprising prove;
through sleep and darkness safely brought,
restored to life and power and thought

Habituated to time in this way, I find it hard to feel the finitude of ‘my time’, of ‘my life’s little day’. So when I think and imagine the end of my time, I find it both a bit difficult to imagine and profoundly disturbing. It is one thing to accept mortality as a universal condition of earthly beings, and of earth itself, it is another thing to live the knowledge of self, (in its individual, social, conceptual and material forms and dimensions) as mortal, vulnerable to the day when the heavens are rolled up as a scroll and I am not. 

For many people, is there not an almost instinctive rejection contemplating and accepting extinction, when we are out of time? Such a passing over into non-existence is refused because it is unthinkable. It is made unthinkable by the joy, vigour and evident worth of our being, with its ingrown sense of continuity? 

(Ps 16.9,10; Acts 13.35: God will not allow his Holy One to see corruption – extended to all without effort?)

We ignore death as long and as far as possible. We learn how to think of it in comforting euphemisms. 

Is this the point of view from which we see old age, and care for old people now? We build on their memories, on their increasingly fragile hold on life they have acquired through time, we sing the old songs with them, and bring back the flutters of earlier smiles, and so we help them to live happily in their last days. We do what we can to maintain the continuity of their being. Death comes nearer every day, takes away their friends, but they are encouraged to live the present moment to the full. So the old are protected from some troubling truth, often with their own willing acceptance. And indeed practice of this kind is greatly to be respected and admired, for it is right to make the most of what is given in gratitude and love. Old people, living each day to the full, minister in the moment, often shedding joy and courage around them. They hold on fruitfully to what life from babyhood has taught and given them – a strong sense of the continuity of being, and of the duty of affirming it, making the best of it. We might say they modestly resign themselves to the impossibility for mortal creatures to do justice to the reality of mortality. It is dangerous to attempt to live death before it comes to us – that is a damaging perversion of any asceticism. 

Can we then do nothing more than let death come whenever it does? Is there nothing here to think about, nothing to put ourselves into riskily imagining, no good reason to explore the symbolism death spawns in culture and religion? Are we merely to live only as though we will not die – a simple dishonesty – or as though we have no good reason to ‘count our days’ in order to ‘gain a wise heart’? (Psalm 90). 

What I am feeling for in this paper, which is unfinished, and I am getting to the limit of what I can say at the moment, can perhaps be summarized in two points:

  1. Why and how is the finitude of our lived and livable time so much harder to imagine than our littleness in the universe? 
  2. Because the finitude of our time is so much more troubling than our littleness in space, are we to give up letting that finitude infiltrate and challenge our thinking about our being? Or is the very difficulty we have with contemplating our end a big reason for exploring it?


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