Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Malleability of Time

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

Shuffling noises could still be heard through my semi-conscious state - some of feet, and perhaps running water. The light streaming in had me move a little right-ward, hoping to avoid the sun for just that little longer, knowing that my time was almost up; the final moments I had to catch a few more winks before the dreadful vibration would be felt in my pocket, telling me that: "It's time."

That was then, and that was when I was subjected to the hours of an OPC (off-peak car), which translates to having your car stationary from 7am to 7pm on weekdays. Being the semi-snob that I am and refusing to take the hour-long bus-ride and potentially letting my would-be students make inane jokes about my drooling state, I opted to go through a routine that required me to wake up at 5.30am everyday so that I can get to the carpark before 7am, with enough time to catch a few winks before my class at 9. Conversely, I had to  tarry on after class till at least 7pm before I could start on my way home.

Case in point: The malleability of Time. In Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Time, Dali paints a surrealistic painting of melting clocks. While common interpretations have come to describe the meaning of the painting on the meaninglessness and relativity of Time, my first impression when I saw the painting was how "soft" and "flexible" time is to a person.

In the case of waking up early to make it to school before 7am is simply a matter of adjusting my body clock (and maybe a bit of the lifestyle) in exchange for saving a couple of hundred bucks a month, which on a more abstract level, comes down to re-shuffling the time schedules, allocating time meant for sleep to travelling instead, and then time meant for travelling to sleep.

A minute and common point in basic altering of one's lifestyle or rescheduling one's time perhaps, but the bigger point is how malleable can be. Ironically, time is so fixed - to the number of hours we each get a day - and yet so malleable, in which we can entirely decide how we want to spend it - use it to put in the hours in an office for a paycheck, dedicate it to honing a skill in music or sports (or games), letting it tick by in the comfort of a loved one, or simply just kill it by staring into space and letting it disappear in the void.

It is quite ironic really, when I see the youth of my students who are so desparate to find ways to kill their time, lamenting about their life and just finding ways to fast-forward it to grow up faster; and yet, as I grow older, I've grown a lot more cautious about how my time is spent, becoming increasingly particular about efficiency, and wishing I had more time in my hands, especially from that which I wasted in my youth.

In the end, Time is perhaps the only resource a person can be said to possess entirely, and one has the total freedom of how he or she would want to spend it - but the bigger dilemma is making the time count. Often, people forget just how malleable time is, allocating a "proper time" to certain things, like when it is to sleep, or to eat, or work, and are too willing to let their time and their life run on rails.

Especially true in the natural order when running too long in the rat race, where most are content to sink into a Work-Eat-Relax-Sleep routine for 5 out of 7 days of their lives, and often put everything else that can be done to a simple rhetorical question of "where to find the time?" And in the blink of an eye, days, months or even years pass by, with you wondering where all the time went and how your life passed by without you really knowing - probably lost in the the sea of consumerism and meaningless indulgence.

For me personally, I need the occasional all-nighter or meaningful vacation to remind myself just exactly how long a night is, or just how much can be done in the span of a day - to realign my perspective of Time. But more than that, I think it is important to find Meaning - first in Life, and then naturally in Time.

I always tell people that I will probably only live till 40 due to my vampiric lifestyle and bad habits. Part of it is in jest perhaps, and maybe part of it has a ring of truth; but the larger part of it is often to remind myself to make my days and years count. Perhaps with the constant scarcity looming overhead, I will be more cautious of how I want to spend my time, how to get the most out of it, drive me towards thinking a bit harder about realising what I want in life, and I want to achieve by the end of it - especially if it could be just 10 years or so away.

So, if you could only live till 40, how would you spend your Time?


Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Myth of Sisyphus

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king punished for cheating the gods and escaping death. When he was eventually caught, he was being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, bearing its full weight; and when it got to the top of the hill, the Sisyphus had to watch the rock roll back down the hill, and start the process all over - and this was to go on for all eternity. 

The maddening nature of the punishment was reserved for Sisyphus due to his belief that his cleverness surpassed that of Zeus. As a result when Sisyphus was condemned to his punishment, Zeus displayed his own cleverness by binding Sisyphus to an eternity of frustration with the boulder rolling away from Sisyphus when he neared the top of the hill.

Metaphorically, the Myth of Sisyphus has been used to talk about many things - the ceaseless and endless toil of the Sisyphus as a parallel to the things that we do or work on on a daily basis - nothing more than rather meaningless and menial tasks that amount to nothing much at the end of our lives, leading to the greater points of the absurdity of life in general - the full knowledge of this meaninglessness, and yet the continual push to pursue it.

More than this though, the main question that occured to me in this tale are the thoughts and motivations that run through Sisyphus' mind each time he sees the boulder roll down the slope, as he pursues it, only to start the process again, knowing the full extent of where it is heading and how it is going to turn out...


As the news came to me that I would be required to fill the nominal role and go outfield for this round's annual reservist, after a (too) good 10-year span, my mind ran amok as something in me just snapped, or perhaps, kick-started; a feeling of helpless and hopeless desperation, as my mind ran wild with every possible possibility I could conjure to escape this fate; constantly generating, analysing and dissecting each idea that popped into my head - a feeling that I hadn't felt for the longest time, perhaps as long as when I finally left the gloom of the army behind, and went on to lead a much happier life.

At the same time though, it seemed to have revive a certain kind of drive in me, one fuelled by aggression and determination, that runs on the mantra of "no matter the cost", in getting things done or getting my way in things.  A sharp contrast to 10-years of relative comfort, and perhaps in retrospect, complacency - one that only comes from safety and comfort from a good life, one you don't fully realise how good it is until it is starkly juxtaposed against having to endure the grime, the dirt, the discomfort, the sweat, the heat, the hunger, the fatigue, or perhaps above all - as with Sisyphus, the meaninglessness of the entire task.

10 years is a long time, but not long enough to even come close to remotely forgetting how dreadful an outfield experience is, and how disruptive it is to life as I've come to know it. 10 years is a long time when it comes to trying to muster the mental and physical fortitude that one was able to conjure at will when one was required to flex it and just bite the bullet - perhaps too many teeth have dropped over the decade to make for a pretty weak bite these days. And yet, 10 years is a long time for someone to grow mentally and emotionally.

What was knee-jerk reaction to think like the Escapist that I was from many years back, slowly faded into a more calm spirit of Acceptance; one that only comes with a certain degree of maturity, I believe. It is not one that is made out of back-pressed-against-the-wall circumstances - as there were still some desperate measures that lingered at the back of my mind throughout the whole mental thought process that I contemplated till days before - but rather, one that was consciously made from weighing all the options and considering all the circumstances carefully; one that I can proudly say was not a selfish one, as perhaps, unlike those that were made when I was much younger; when the repercussions didn't matter, and the ends self-convincingly justified the means.

Someone once said that "God does not give you a burden more than you are able to bear", and in that light, I think that I've been shown mercy in this respect. The entire experience was eased in quite progressively, as the time spent outfield was approximately 24-hours on the first week, and doubling to 48-hours on the final mission - with an additional blessing of the exemption from some of the worst that I have mentally psyched myself up for, through some sort of mysterious benevolence and unique circumstances.

Upon reflection, though I still hate the outfield experience with every fibre in my being, I think suddenly being displaced and disrupted from life as one knows it does something to one's way of seeing things. An attained and validated sense of maturity comes to mind, but perhaps more importantly, is the revival of a certain drive and aggression that has been lost from me for the longest time, one perhaps I have a better channel for at this stage of life than I did in my youth. However, the underlying lesson from all of this is one of mind rather than matter.

As the French philosopher, Albert Camus argues, in the case of Sisyphus, acknowledging the truth will conquer it; Sisyphus, just like the absurd man, keeps pushing. Camus claims that when Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate, he is freed to realize the absurdity of his situation and to reach a state of contented acceptance. Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well.

The bottomline: It is all a matter of Perspective. The very (absurd) act of contemplating and thereby fully acknowledging the meaningless or dreadful tasks presented to one, is probably the first step one must take towards eventually overcoming it, if not physically or circumstantially, then at least, mentally. With that, a state of Acceptance should naturally follow, and eventually, "all will be well".

Some parts of this post were taken from Wikipedia.org and http://www.nyu.edu/classes/keefer/hell/camus.html