15 years later
September 17, 2018
One of our much circulated cliches about time is that it “forgives no one”. The idea behind it, of course, is that we become older and unhappier, with every day that passes. But why should the two be correlative — age and unhappiness? Why should we assume that getting old is some sort of punishment? If I had a dime for every old man or woman I met, who had a permanent smile on their face…
Having just spent a week in New York, 15 years after my last visit there, I am definitely happy to experience the city at a different age. It’s almost like a love-hate relationship; or a life and death situation – the intensity of it, the multi-faceted experience.
Milosz says in one of his poems that once he met God; and was surprised to find that He neither threatened punishment, nor did He promise reward. Time is like that, too. It falls beyond our usual normative ‘ism’s. The city talks to you differently, 15 years later. It reveals different wounds. Starting with simple things. Like the way buildings and pavements look, and the marks they carry. For instance, the striking association between two types of stairs — those for external fire escape, ‘decorating’ so many of the city’s buildings, and those to the basement, which can be seen in front of almost every shop, restaurant, cafe, or bar. I never noticed this 15 years ago, despite the fact that at the time I spent nearly four months in the city. And now, in just one week, I find it so fascinating, so unescapable, that I cannot help thinking about it as a hallmark of some secret ‘alternative’ city within the city. Stairs falling down into the bowels of the underworld, or stairs shooting out to the sky. Whatever we see has a flip-side; wherever we go, the destination is staring back at us with a deeper look.
And neither people, nor institutions are any different. They seem welcoming at times, whilst stepping back at the last minute. Inviting you in, and politely sending you away in the absence of a pass card. And I embrace these apparent contradictions as just another sign from a much loved and forever withdrawing city.
Finally, this time around, New York seems to have a much more existentialist character. I can easily imagine setting up an existentialist club here — and I don’t mean it as a fashion trend. I can see us (my students, anyone?) debate my radical ethics project, or Heidegger’s later turn, and what it tells us about philosophy and — more importantly — about ourselves. The flow of thoughts happens to be much deeper on a clear, wet New York afternoon, out in the open, than on so many visits to a number of Continental libraries. Granted, this might only tells us something about the freedom of thought, rather than the city itself. And yet, there is something inherently existential about New York, something I never fully appreciated 15 years ago.
Time has nothing to forgive, just so much to give us.
New York City is a place that I am very lucky to live a couple hours away from. Having gone there consistently over the past fifteen years I too have seen this change. As you suggest, it is not so much a physical change, the subways still have the familiar (unpleasant) smell, the Empire State Building stands as it always has and Times Square still has the same 21st-century look it has had since the Juliani regime removed the porn and debauchery from it years back. However, with all of this staying the same, I too feel something different each time I enter the city of New York. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that "every time you see the New York City skyline, it is as if you are seeing it for the first time". New York demands an emotional reaction and as we grow, our emotions change. We begin to appreciate the intricacy of the city, rather than just being drawn to tourist destinations. The older you get, the more you begin to feel the energy of the city. It is important to accept this evolution of the mind because it is naturally how we as humans are meant to progress. Time gives us the great gift of growth. We get to experience everything in this world multiple different times as our mind develops and learns to appreciate our reality differently. This goes for food, cities, books, movies, nature, God etc.
I had a conversation once with a friend of my Grandmother’s and she was talking about how she did not want to go back to California where she grew up and went to school because it would be so different and instead wished to keep the image in her head of what it was like in the past. Though I did not challenge her at the time, I have always thought that was a poor philosophy to carry. I look forward to visiting London, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Paris etc. once I am older to see how the world has evolved over my lifetime. To remember how it felt when I was twenty years old and contrast that with how it feels like a 70-year-old.
Agreeing with you, I say that time is definitely a gift.
Thanks Ryan, for sharing your relevant experience on this. As you say, a city may look or feel differently not just because of the superficial changes in it, but also – most significantly – because we look at it with different eyes, and perceive it with a more mature mind. Phenomenology (a school of thought that started with Husserl, Heidegger’s teacher, and continues to this day in a wide range of disciplines, not only in philosophy), would call this existential experience. And sometimes that is more important – and certainly more interesting – than ‘objective’ accounts of life in a city at a particular point in time. Time is a gift, but it comes intertwined with space, in human experience, and living through that is as unique as it is transient, incomplete, and only partially understood.
I think happiness and age naturally have no correlation, however, society has created the concept that objective joy is related to age. While getting older seems to correspond with getting weaker and closer to death, I don’t think it’s necessarily something to be afraid of or unhappy about. Many people believe the younger you are, the more time you have to experiment with hobbies or careers. However, in many cases, with age comes time, offering a possible break from the fast-paced environment of today’s world, Furthermore, I believe the innocence of youth creates a distinct romanticisation of lots of events and places, giving an essence of mystery and whimsicality which many believe seems to perish with maturity. Perspective seems to play an important role in this debate. As you mentioned, the privilege of being able to experience the same place 15 years later and approach it with more experience and knowledge, you’re able to get a new perception, and even take new romanticised ideas away from it, capturing the innocent nature of the young and intertwining it with maturity.
Well that is a very mature reflection, Olivia! True, we tend to romanticise many aspects related to youth – just as we may be too quick to feel sorry for the old. But on the other hand, we might find ourselves romanticising the wisdom that allegedly comes with age and associating immaturity with the young. All generalisations are deeply flawed. The only thing we have left is the authenticity of lived experience — although of course, once that subject to reflection and language, it may easily be altered and even manipulated. "To the things themselves!" said Husserl, the founder of phenomenology.
I believe that there are different waves of happiness and unhappiness in any given person’s life. There is happiness when big events happen like graduations, weddings, or promotions, but also sadness during a breakup, funeral or getting fired. I think that what makes many people believe that we become more unhappy as we become older is because we simply have more life experience as we get older and have accumulated more events in our lives. I believe that some people have had more unhappy events in their lives by the time the reach a certain age, say fifty, and some people have had more happy events and that is what determines whether or not they are happy. Also, I think it is unfair to say that as we get older we become more unhappy because many old people are extremely content with their lives and are so happy to still be living. There are also some old people who have many regrets and are sick and/or in pain that are extremely unhappy with how their lives have turned out. I believe these unhappy older people are unhappy because they have simply just lived through more unhappy times than happy times and so they have more unhappy memories. Also, maybe there are some people who lose sight of who they are as they age due to the monotony of life and so they lose the ability to make themselves happy because they cannot remember what brings them joy.
Davis, what you say in the first half of your comment is common sense; and you are right — happiness or unhappiness is simply what happens to dominate a person’s life. But when you think about it some more, you might realise that there is no objective way of judging that happiness or unhappiness. The same events may be perceived (especially in retrospect) as mostly happy OR mostly unhappy, by different people. It is more about what happens in the mind, than ‘out there’. Some of those old people you say are very happy may have had a truly difficult life – and yet they have achieved an inner balance and serenity, which does not require a total sum of ‘happy’ moments.
The uncanny connection between getting older and getting unhappier as time passes sounds monotonous but new to my ears. I got the sense that you are trying to say that time has a neutral nature to it and that time as a concept is something we are too primitive to grasp but nevertheless, it chooses to teach us a lot about ourselves and the places we have been to.
thanks for your thoughts on this; you’re certainly right about time teaching us a lot about ourselves and the places we visit. But I’m not sure why you might think that I assign neutrality to it. I would incline to see it more in terms of human perception, rather than some intrinsic — and "objective" — quality of things.
When you’re not sure about a concept’s meaning in a particular text, it might help to think of what others think of it (the meaning they assign to it) and then position yourself vis-a-vis these interpretations. In this case, for instance, you could refer to the Aristotelian category of time (or, rather, its formulation as a question, ‘when?’); or to the Kantian notion of time as a form of intuition; or St. Augustine’s view of time as a human phenomenon (rather than God’s creation). Then you could ask what kind of view does this text assume — if any. And then, you could decide where you stand on the issue — by contrast to the various views mentioned before. And remember to support your own view with reasons.
In your comment, you try to distinguish what I might mean by time, and indicate that you’re in favour of some uncommon view ("not to my ears"). But you don’t explain that view. Instead, you go back to my suggestion — that time can teach us a lot. You could have used that as a platform to present your own point of view. What, for instance, has the passing of time taught you. And what else may be seen as a lesson from time.
This could be the start of an intriguing line of argumentation — but you must go through it, step by step. Do not leave us guessing too much.