On time (and why ‘living in the now’ is b*s*)

“Temporality is evidently an organised structure. The three so-called “elements” of time, past, present, and future,  should not be considered as collection of “givens” for us to sum up – for example, as an infinite series of “nows” in which some are not yet and others are no longer – but rather as the structured moments of an original synthesis. Otherwise we will immediately meet with this paradox: the past is no longer; the future is not yet; as for the instantaneous present, everyone knows that this does not exist at all but is the limit of an infinite division, like a point without dimension.”

– Jean-Paul Sartre

The idea that the past is no longer and the future is not yet, is something that goes back to the Stoics in ancient Greece, who derived from it the conclusion that neither past nor future is something we should worry about. But that’s a different discussion. But – being an existentialist – I completely agree: the past is no longer and the future is not yet.

What’s more important is the idea of ‘now’ in Sartre’s thinking. Contrary to the popular idea that ‘now’ is all we have to focus on, I’d say there is no ‘now’ either. Or like Sartre puts it: “The instantaneous present” does not exist.

Now, maybe this causes a slight panic in the eyes of those readers who have been into ‘mindfulness’ in recent years, or have been reading magazines that promote “to live in the now!” WTF do you mean there is no now??

Let me try to explain my view this way: If we try to describe how humans experience time, it is often done so in terms of an arrow. The arrow flies from the past towards the future. (This is why we like to make ‘time lines’.) The idea is that during it’s flight, at every given moment the arrow is supposed to be at a certain point. In terms of time that point would be ‘now’.

But this is a false image. Unlike an arrow in mid air, time is never ‘at a certain point’. Because it’s not an object like an arrow. It flows from the past into the future, more – if you want to compare – like water in a river, never the same, never anywhere, because as soon as you try to pinpoint it somewhere, it’s already somewhere else. The same with time: as soon as you say the word ‘now’, the moment you are trying to describe has already past. It’s what Sartre means by saying that now is a “point with no dimension”.

This is why I don’t believe in the mantra “live in the now”. You can’t. Because you cannot grasp it. And actually you don’t, however ‘mindful’ you are. Because we humans are ‘future-oriented’. Everything we do or think or desire has to do with the future. That future may be the next second or the next month or the next decade. But literally everything we do is future-oriented. We are always standing with one leg in the future.

And I think that’s OK. Personally I like the idea of living ‘future-oriented’ much better than limiting it to ‘now’. We are living our lives coming from the past and entering the future all the time, never fixed in one moment of time. But then again, now I’m only describing my experience of time, using the elements past, now and future. Which is what Sartre’s quote was all about.