The Nature of Time: Listening for the Demands of Now
In memory of Julia Rodriguez, 37
In the beginning of the pandemic, I was in Brooklyn, NY and I remember feeling afraid. For me, at that time, to feel afraid was new and terrifying and exhilarating. Suddenly, when my friends were getting sick, and when everything I knew I no longer knew, and when I no longer knew what I didn’t know, I encountered the contingency of my being, my human existence. In those moments, what was so powerful was the realization that I was alive during a plague.
I’m not sure why this is so, but these moments hit me differently than other major events like, say, 9/11 or the 2016 election results. I think it felt even closer to home. March 2020 gave me the insight that I, too, was a part of history. I remembered learning about the Black Death in the Middle Ages, but I never in my life until that point thought that I would- that I might- live through one. (And now, I wasn’t sure I would in fact live through “this,” whatever “this” was.) Why hadn’t I thought to imagine that my years on earth might include some beset by plague? Who had I thought I was- that we were- that it hadn’t even crossed my mind as a possibility?
I harken back to those moments from almost two years ago because, in this new secular year of 2022, with MLK Jr. Day and Tu B’Shvat (the Jewish New Year of the Trees) and the Chinese New Year of the Tiger around the corner, I am still reflecting on time.
When King preached on the “fierce urgency of now,” he was rejecting an understanding of the days of our lives as merely “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow [creeping] from day to day.” He was affirming a notion of time which, rather than lull us into complacency by its monotony, made demands of us.
He understood that now is not just any time. Now is a sort of reality- a variable in the picture of things in existence- worthy of attention. The German word, “zeitgeist,” loosely translated to mean “spirit of the age,” perhaps speaks to this notion of the specificity and character of distinct moments. Hillel’s rhetorical question, “If not now, when?” (אִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו אֵימָתָי) in Pirkei Avot speaks to this situation of the ongoing passing of time amidst a world of possibility and need.
Tu B’Shvat also points towards time. Why would we be called to celebrate trees and nature during the dead of winter? It seems ill-timed, temporally misplaced in the Hebrew year, as if our ancient forebears made a calendrical mistake.
Perhaps, Tu B’Shvat comes when it does in the year precisely to help us notice the life that is beginning to be born around us. It is winter that gives birth to spring.
Reflecting on King’s “fierce urgency of now,” I ask each of us to consider what demands our time is making on us.
Each of us will live finite lives and each of us may have intuitions on the question.
Nonetheless, for the sake of understanding what it means that our time is making demands, let us momentarily consider:
Is global warming capable of endangering our very existence as a species on the earth? Is the clock ticking regarding when we can still undertake meaningful action to protect ourselves and our home?
What if, decades from now, our children were to say:
“In the 21st century, on account of foreseen effects of global warming, we suffered vast human misery of different kinds, and our global home on planet earth was irretrievably mutilated, beyond repair. We are the last human beings, and our human species- alongside many others- will not be able to survive on this planet any longer.”
What if, decades from now, we were to say:
“Those we thought were the adults in the room were “emperors with no clothes.” The ongoing and remarkable efforts and work of so many failed to change the course of the sinking ship that was our species. The leaders knew that it was politically radioactive to ask us to do what we needed to do to save our earth, and, well, we came up short. Now, we are ashamed that we acted like ‘business as usual’ and chose not to know, not to understand, not to think, and not to act.”
Our fate is not sealed.
What if, to contrast, we reflected and acted on the “fierce urgency of now?”
In a time of winter, we can — we must — engender new life.