I write a post each year on January 1. Sometimes these are personal, but this year, I want to talk about time.
I don’t believe in time itself. What I mean by this is that time is a reference frame and a useful tool, but it isn’t a real thing beyond that. Beginnings and ends are all relative.
As far as ends go, there are countless ways for human beings to go extinct. We could blow ourselves up with nuclear bombs. Climate change could lead to the planet being uninhabitable for humans. A near-Earth supernova could cause a mass extinction event and end human life.
And then what will we be? What will all of our toil, our sorrow, our joy amount to? Nothing. But we always will have been. And maybe that’s something.
People often say that history repeats itself or that history won’t be kind to bad people, but this isn’t how it works at all. We fondly remember war criminals as if they were great kings. We deem leaders who won in battle to be honorable, no matter how many people died so they could secure their own territory, wealth, and property.
History, as it’s told, always seems to be a narrative of the same themes and archetypes. History belongs to the victors, and we should consider the possibility that it shouldn’t.
Just as time is a reference frame, so, too, is history. The victors tell their stories as if they are the good guys. In the United States, as an example, we are taught that the Cold War was merely a “time of political tension.” We’re told it wasn’t a “real” war because it wasn’t violent, since violence has come to be defined as a physical attack by another nation or by non-white people on American soil.
But if you don’t let the imperialists tell the story, then you know that millions of people died in the Cold War’s so-called “proxy” wars. And millions remain displaced to this day because of very real violence, because of wealth concentration and puppet governments, because of the poverty that follows war and violence that inevitably extends to civilians, especially women and children.
History is always the same. Kings, generals, wars, trade, nations, treaties. It isn’t that it repeats, it’s that nothing changes. We just pretend that differences in boundaries, economies, and technology mean differences in people.
If you can look beyond the people with power and the memorable personalities, if you can read between the lines, you’ll see that history and time are always unkind to those without political or economic capital.
The real story of humans is a story of exploitation — of “barbarians,” “serfs,” “slaves,” “savages,” “peasants,” “natives,” “servants,” “dalits.” Of wage laborers. Of women. Of children.
The words and context change, but the exploitation and the idea that some human lives are less valuable than others doesn’t. It’s happening now and it always will have happened and then is always now. History is a reference frame. We just pretend like it moves in a line.
Philosophers have written about the “end of history” using assumed but naïve notions of progress and telos and fate. The trouble is that most people seem to think progress a real, linear thing, too.
We think things slowly get better, but they don’t. Power will find another way to screw you over. You think there is some acceptance of non-binary genders and transgender people, but then “gender reveal parties” become a thing. And it always seems to work that way. A law of the conservation of bigotry. The end of slavery becomes the start of Jim Crow. The end of Jim Crow becomes the start of the prison-industrial-complex. Anti-semitism didn’t end after World War II. Sexism doesn’t end after suffrage.
How do we speak of the margins throughout history? How do we speak of the serfs? Of the enslaved? Of women? Of non-heterosexual people? Of people who were forced to live as the wrong gender? Because if history books teach you anything it’s that these people either hardly existed or didn’t exist at all. And if they did, almost none of them had names.
The myth of progress allows us to pretend like exploitation lessens over time. It doesn’t.
We think about our own lives in these ways, too, our own little histories and timelines, like we need to be stories of progress, of betterment, or we don’t have value. A life as a series of milestones and goals we never meet.
I had a friend in college whose mom once told me that she still felt 22 on the inside. That her attitude toward life, her outlook, the things she felt capable of, the things she enjoyed, hadn’t changed in 30 years. At the time I thought, “that can’t be,” but I’m in my 30s and I get it now. The thing you learn as you get older is that no one has life figured out, we just rack up more experience points. But that doesn’t mean we cope better or don’t have questions or stop enjoying the silly frivolous things we did when we were “young.”
Time isn’t real, and that makes it hard to believe that people change. But we mistakenly think change is dependent on time and that it is an inevitable thing that happens. The truth is, it is and isn’t. Some change requires conscious action.
We can make mistakes and we can learn from them and we can let go of the things that hold us back and we can be exposed to more people and ideas. And some of us use these expansions of knowledge to try to become better people. It’s not a matter of time, it’s a matter of being open to the world and being willing to admit you don’t have it figured out. It’s a matter of realizing that you are one among many and history won’t remember any of us.
It’s a matter of appreciating that you can keep learning your whole life, for however long or short it seems to be. Because change isn’t growth over time, positive change is an opening up. And we can always do it. We can be better people right now. And we should do it, because now is all we have. And we are all we have.
The myths of time and history and progress make it seem like we have to wait for something to happen. But we don’t. Those myths are perpetrated by those who benefit from the exploitation, from the negative, those who will take from you all they can while you wait for nothing.
Of course it isn’t always nothing.
We get sad when things end, when things die, and we should allow ourselves to feel those things, but we should also understand that nothing is ever really lost, at least not to time. Even if our memories don’t hold onto everything we want them to.
We always will have been and we will always be now.