Thursday, April 3, 2014

Time is a Trap

by Ben Howard

Time is, in a very real sense, a trap.

Contrary to constant proclamations and reminders about the need to stay “in the moment” or to “live in the present,” reality stubbornly presents us with no real alternative.

We are always here. We are always in the now and for good or ill there is no escape from this context.

In his book Eating the Dinosaur Chuck Klosterman includes an essay about time travel. As part of his exploration into this narrative conceit he discusses his own metaphor for the way time operates. He describes time as a train with one person hanging off the front and another hanging off the back. The person hanging off the front is constantly laying down the piece of track to be used in the next moment, while the person hanging off the back is picking up the track that's just been used.

Both past and future exist only as mental constructs. Presents gone and presents still to come.

And that constant movement, that constant shift from moment to moment, from now to now, it pulls a trick on us all.

If you ever want an object lesson on why predicting the future is a stupid endeavor just listen to political podcasts from two years ago. Or a year ago. Or even six months ago.

There is no hilarity like a full-throated and certain prediction of an impending Mitt Romney presidency.  Nor is there anything as cringe-worthy as a haughty assurance that Congress would never force a government shutdown or hearing it described as almost inevitable that President Obama will pass gun control legislation, or at the very least, immigration reform.

Of course it's not the fault of the pundits. They are working on a deadline and they get neither the aid of hindsight or enough time for reflection before they're asked to explain what all this “means” and tell a waiting public how everything will work out. It is their job to know the future before it happens. And it's a job that's beyond us all.

It's not fair to judge the words of the past in the reality of the present. Time is a trap.

Last week World Vision USA announced it would hire employees in same-sex marriages. Support flooded the internet, but outrage flooded it even more. Eventually money spoke and the decision was reversed. The narrative has been repeated ad nauseum.

Many people have written about the reasons for these decisions and what symbolic meaning we can take both from the policy change and its subsequent reversal. You should read them, they are interesting and instructive. This essay is not about those decisions or that symbolic meaning.

This essay is about why you will forget it.

They say time heals all wounds. This is true. This is true, sort of.

As time moves on, our memories blur. Hurts become less painful and joys become less pleasurable. And while we can say that time is healing these hurts, these cuts and bumps and bruises, it's not entirely accurate. It's rather that we assimilate them. They become a part of us and change us ever so slightly. The jagged edge of immediacy is smoothed out and we are left with a new configuration of ourselves, but one we have already become familiarized with during the slow healing process. We change, but we do not realize we are changing.

In one month, two months, six months, a year, no one will recall the World Vision controversy into which we've invested so much over the last two weeks. It will be little more than an anecdote, a footnote to the debate over gay marriage and the culture war raging within Christianity.

It will have entirely lost its symbolic place as either the death knell of evangelicalism (or its resurgence depending on your perspective). I invite you to revisit these blogs and tweets and Facebook posts a year from now; they will seem myopic and over-blown. It will feel like they exist in a different world.

This is not to say that it meant nothing. The fights were real and so was the hurt. The betrayal was true. But in time the wounds will no longer be as fresh, they may even “heal,” but they will leave slightly different people in their wake.

And this is the real trauma. It's not the death of a movement or the mass exodus of millennials. It's only slightly about gay marriage and equal rights.

The real trauma is that this will exist as one more jagged little paper cut. One more scarred-over battle-wound leaving us increasingly desensitized, increasingly prepared for combat, increasingly on the lookout for enemies from without and within.

In time, this will be yet another moment that affects us and changes us ever so slightly. So slightly that we don't even realize it as we become hard and cynical, as we begin once again to view “other” as synonymous with “enemy.”

Look out, it's a trap. 

Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87. 

You can follow On Pop Theology on Twitter @OnPopTheology or like us on Facebook at If you'd like to support what we do, you can donate via the button on the right of the screen.

Image Credits:
Image #1 via CityGypsy11
Image #2 via KamrenB Photogrophy
Image #3 via darkanimelight 
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