St. Augustine and Heidegger were two thinkers obsessed with time. Not time in the sense that physicists might understand it, but time as a phenomenon: how humans experience time. St. Augustine was fascinated with the mystery of time: in what sense do the past and future exist? They are in an obvious sense unreal – all we really have with us is the present after all. But even the present is a mystery: if it has any duration (e.g. a second long) it means that we can journey through it from its beginning to its end. But how can something which has a past (beginning) and future (end) be the present. If it has no duration, on the other hand, then how can it be a part of time?
Heidegger, on the other hand, spoke about the three ecstasies of time: basically the past, the present and the future. And what I would briefly like to reflect upon in this piece is how we relate to these three different ‘times’, and in particular how, I believe, many of our problems arise from the fact that we often fail to give each of these three ecstasies their due. In short, we often fail to find a balance between living in the past, the present and the future.
Beginning with the past, there is often a tendency, especially as people get older, to live in the past: to spend (waste) one’s present time obsessing about the past, either in the negative sense of mulling about past hurts or lost opportunities or, in the positive sense, of reminiscing about one’s ‘golden’ days of youth. In such cases both the present and the future get sidelined and one effectively gets trapped in the past. Without a present and, in particular, without the goals and dreams that come with the future one cannot move forward in any true sense.
Moving on to the present, there has been much made about this particular ecstasy in some of the New Age influences on our culture that arose particularly during the 60s. As an example, think of Eckhart Tolle’s well-known book called The Power of Now. While living in the present has its place, without a clear future and a clear past, the present simply lapses into a miasma of meaninglessness. The present is too chaotic and complex to provide any meaning of its own: we need the two other times in order to orientate us in the present: to guide us in terms of what to choose to notice in the present and to provide the present with some sense of meaning.
And then lastly we have the future. Just as in the case of the other two ecstasies we can easily get lost in the future and spend all our time planning and scheduling and chasing dreams and goals. If taken too far this means both not learning from the lessons of the past and, in addition, not being open to the unexpected opportunities and threats that arise in the present. We become blind to the need for occasionally changing our projected path through life.
In conclusion, we need to give each time its due and find a way to balance the three ecstasies. We need to find the time for each of the three times. In short, we need to realize that human time is story time: a journey that has a past, a present and a future. We are, in a strange way, our own stories and one cannot tell a story (and be fully human) by neglecting the past, present or future.