Gad, another year has gone ... but where exactly did it go?

Long ago I read in one of those Chump's Guide to Philosophy books that a philosopher named M'Taggert devoted his career to the subject of time, and my reaction was that he certainly seemed to know a thing or two about wasting it. Eventually, as I aged, I realized he might have been on to something. I tried asking St. Augustine, to no avail. "What then is time?" he said. "If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know." He's not alone. We all know there's something odd about time, but the more we analyze it the less we understand.

Comedian George Carlin says "There's no present. There's only the immediate future and the recent past." OK. I take his point that the present is too ephemeral for us to grasp even briefly (how long is "now"?). But the past exists only in our memories and the future only in our plans. So time clearly does not exist and neither do we, a disquieting conviction that lasts only until some lummox treads on your foot and you are in pain NOW.

Comedian Red Green says "Time may be a great healer, but it's a lousy beautician." And we laugh. I could print a whole column of these jokes (no you couldn't - ed!) such as the Gilbert! magazine bumper sticker: "Warning: Dates in Calendar are closer than they appear." But what is this clear, colourless, odourless yet highly corrosive liquid that flows over all of us?

It has been said that time is God's way of keeping everything from happening at once. Without time there could be notes and even chords but no melodies, and who would wish to live in such a world even if such "life" were possible?

Time is connected with morality as well as mortality and not, I think, by coincidence. We are all familiar with the habitual Clintonian evasion of responsibility exhibited by, say, former Chr├ętien aide Jean Carle when a report on the APEC summit criticized him: "Life is too short for regrets. You have to move forward." Yes, but that's a law of physics, not of morality. As C.S. Lewis observes, "The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is." And yet Shakespeare has John of Gaunt say "What are six winters? They are quickly gone." And Bolingbroke replies "To men in joy; but grief makes one hour ten." Why? Why are some of us hurled forward by time and some of us dragged?

Because time's chief peculiarity is that while it is mathematically just another dimension, morally it is a one-way street. The moving finger writes and having written moves on, yes. But crucially the writing remains.

The plot can twist and turn while there's still ink in the pen. But time cannot absolve Bill Clinton of perjury without becoming a universal solvent. Paul Wells noted earlier this year that Jean Chr├ętien managed within one month to refuse to discuss the war in Iraq first because it hadn't happened yet, then because it was still happening, then because "it's over, so I don't want to spend a lot of time to debate it." Once you've swept aside past, present and future, mankind starts running out of tenses.

As G.K. Chesterton says, "The one thing a man cannot do is exactly what all modern artists and free lovers are always trying to do. He cannot cut his life up into separate sections ... The basis of all tragedy is that man lives a coherent and continuous life ... Man even in his lowest and darkest manifestation has always this characteristic of physical and psychological unity ... as he sows so shall he reap."

In The Lion King the adolescent Simba learns from Timon to let go of misery with a simple slogan of "No Worries" that consigns the past to the rubbish heap. It takes him part way, but then Rafiki clouts him on the head and when Simba asks "What was that for?" replies "It doesn't matter; it's in the past." So is every injury, but doing them is still wrong. That is why time is to Tolkien the Gift, as well as the Doom, of Men: Without wrong there is no right, no purpose and no moral agent. As a gravely ill deputy governor of the Bank of Canada once said, "Today is a gift. That's why they call it the present." And I hope it works out well for you this year.

I wish I could say more, and maybe if I'd read M'Taggert I could. But the truth is I've never found the time, just as I once got a company e-mail about a time management seminar but was too busy to go.

No matter. I am unafraid. Indeed, I face the new year with a new slogan: "I have not yet begun to procrastinate."

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson