Robert Winer, M.D.

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On Time - Chapters 1 & 2



Time’s arrow peeks out at me from behind my awareness. At moments it faces me full-frontal; it is aimed at my heart.


There is much in my daily life that distracts me from time’s inexorable march. Nature is cyclical. Each dawn is a new beginning -- and each evening an ending, but only temporarily so, for I know that another daybreak will follow. If today’s sessions didn’t go well, I remember that I’ll have another chance tomorrow. I watch from my office window as one season yields to the next, and the seasons come full circle. Culture is shaped by repetition, whether commemorative, like Thanksgiving, or functional, like Election Day. Once again we gather here. There are, to be sure, individual differences. Some of us are more likely to seek out novelty, others familiarity – consider how you choose (or don’t choose) vacations, how you select the television you watch. But for all of us, in an overarching sense, so much of daily life is reiterative, obscuring time’s passage. Today’s newspaper will be followed by tomorrow’s. As soon as this paragraph ends, another paragraph will begin.

In its nature, all thought is recapitulation. This goes well beyond Freud’s observation that the finding of an object is always a re-finding of it. Of course we can only recognize that which we have thought about before. A truly novel experience would be entirely mystifying, awakening to a nightmare. But it is also true that, as Heraclitus said, we don’t step in the same stream twice. The object re-borne is shaped by the act of rebirthing, changed by all the other things that are going on in the state of consciousness in which it is remembered. In that sense, all thought is original. And yet a common preoccupation of struggling authors, thus most authors, is that they will have nothing new to say, and all too often this stops the writing effort dead in its tracks – or, more hopelessly, before it ever gets on the tracks. The writer imagines himself an ink-spiller, a hack recycler.

The feeling that living is repetitive can thus be both paralyzing and reassuring, even in the same moment. Even so, time’s linearity can’t be entirely avoided. The passage of time brings us up short. We have birthdays, cake and ice cream, another reunion, but with a quiet reminder that time’s arrow has another notch. The August after the oldest child graduated college, he was setting out to find his fortune in sustainable community development in Oregon while the rest of the family was packing the van for summer vacation. He noticed that they’d loaded up more luggage for their trip than he was taking for the rest of his life. Over the next few months, with this awareness that his son was now an adult, the father felt drastically older. It wasn’t a physical feeling, rather a shift of identity. More precisely, the father sensed that he was his own age, something he’d been hedging all his adult life. Time’s arrow can catch us by surprise.