Grappling With The Oddity Of Time In Life

To demarcate the periods of our lives is almost wholly a retrospective exercise, a way of presently manifesting, through language, a significant memory on the linear continuum. That is, time itself passes, and, as William James says, “out of [it] we cut ‘days’ and ‘nights,’ ‘summers’ and ‘winters.’” But time has always been a sort of river running through an essentially unchanging “I.” We never think of ourselves as a child, as a young adult, or any categorical person.

Joseph Brodsky says, “Life never looked to me like a set of clearly marked transitions; rather, it snowballs, and the more it does, the more one place (or one time) looks like another.” This snowballing analogy speaks to the perspectival consistency with which we really look at our lives. We accumulate new experience, new knowledge, more time behind us, but our essence is never periodically defined. Brodsky goes on: “I guess there was always some ‘me’ inside that small and, later, somewhat bigger shell around which ‘everything’ was happening.” If we abandon our borrowed delineations, the colloquial, temporal conveniences we use to abstractly conceptualize our lives, what remains is the naked “I,” that has always perceived time not as a periodic habitation but a continuous, fluid present. I am now twenty-one-years-old, and to be tackling the adult world seems both natural and unnatural. I didn’t get here through recognizable pit-stops, through acutely perceived aging and periods; instead, I just inevitably ended up here, moving through time as an embodied, preoccupied “I.” When I look back, the lexicon of periodization — childhood, adolescence, maturity — means nothing to me other than the qualities they seem to say I had, and then go on to conveniently excuse. But when I was a child, an adolescent, etc., I was not cognizant of my life being taped off and labeled with each successive period. Moving through it as an anxious, fiddling, discomfited entity, my only perception was that ostensibly I was getting older and changing, but I felt more or less the same. The banalization of this is when people ask, on birthdays, whether you feel any different.

It is all very odd to think of definitive periods in our lives, partly because no one ever views them as such. It is just our life, and although we are perhaps vaguely aware that we are aging and changing, we are more acutely aware that the cognizant I, the essence of yourself, never really seems to change all that much. “‘I’ never changed and never stopped watching what was going on outside … the passage of time does not much affect that entity,” Brodsky says. There was no officer to tell me I had passed into adulthood, no one to yank the truck from my hands and tell me the time to play with trucks had passed and I was now beginning at post-truck period. Time has never much represented a linear process, but a swirling placement of different, yet ultimately similar “I”s. As Brodsky says, basing this off his own life’s events, “a school is a factory is a poem is a prison is academia is boredom, with flashes of panic.”

Different events elicit different reactions, but I am myself from early stages of consciousness to death, perhaps the only truly discernable “period.” That is why adults are merely consummate pretenders (or terribly inadequate ones; I don’t know which inevitably harms a child more), and we all exist not in stages but in an amorphous flux and flow. We are never “ready” for periods to begin because they do not exist as we superficially conceptualize them. Periods are a facile convenience, only workable in the most surface-level conversations, since upon inspection periods crumble into the rubble of our lives, upon which we brood and sift through to memory. Time, to the individual, is not a catalogue of appropriately published periodicals, but an inertia that carries us unwittingly through the arenas of our lives. We call these things childhood or adulthood or anything in between, but what they prove to be are scenarios entertaining the same “I.”

To recognize this is to free ourselves from the qualitative burdens of periodization, but it is a revelation stained, and from it we take on a new burden, that of perception.