Experiential Time

Experiential Time

But do not ignore this fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 2 Peter 3:8

In last week’s Life Note, as I attempted to illustrate how the concept of eternity cannot be helpfully visualized through the lens of chronological time, I stumbled onto the concept of experiential time. Experiential time, unlike its chronological counterpart, links events along paths of common or related experiences, instead of to their proximity in circular or linear time. When we speak of chronological time, we typically visualize it as movement around a circle or along a line.

For example, the time on a clock is represented as a circle with numbers that repeat in cycles of 12 (Figure 1). Two cycles around the circle signify one day. If we replace the numbers on a clock with the months in a year, i.e., “1” with “January,” “2” with “February,” and so on, one cycle around the circle signifies one year. If we replace the numbers 12, 3, 6, and 9 with seasons, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter, one cycle indicates one journey through the four seasons. These are examples of chronological time, visualized as sequential movement around a circle. It is an earth-bound, artificial creation based on a mostly-orderly division of human-created units of measure using the earth’s rotation on its axis, the earth’s orbit around the sun, and the earth’s wobble in relation to the sun as its standard. When we attempt to visualize eternity with a circular model, we are left with an endlessly repeating model of sameness. There is no accommodation for change or growth outside of the circle. Some thinkers modify the model as a 3-dimentional spiral, where growth occurs by experiencing the circular sameness, but on higher or lower levels of understanding.

Another common way in which chronological time is illustrated is linearly (Figure 2). Pictured in this way, we visualize time as progressing along a straight line from the past to the future. Linear time is marked by the passing of days and years, but along a horizontal axis instead of a circle. When visualized linearly, eternity extends without end, moving from left – the past – to right – the future. We assume, not necessarily correctly, that growth and change occur sequentially along the line, with points to the left being less developed, mature, or enlightened than points to the right.

Regardless of how we illustrate it, chronological time remains an earth-bound, man-created accommodation of the reality we experience. It is a convenient and useful way to organize our days and to coordinate gatherings with others. If, however, we were no longer earth-time bound creatures, our systems for measuring and understanding time would be meaningless. And our typical conceptions of eternity and eternal life – spiritual life – necessarily assume a release from, or at least a transcendence of our earth-bound, time-and-space limitations. While we organize our physical life-experiences in chronological time, the spiritual realities underlying those experiences are better understood outside of linear time. To organize, understand, and mature beyond our experiences of earthly life, we need a different model. Thus, I propose experiential time as another way to examine the flow of our lives, particularly as we consider eternity.

Figure 3 introduces (if awkwardly) a couple of ways we might visualize experiential time in relation to chronological time. The five circles represent 5 different days over 27 years, the first on April 4, 1994, and the last on July 28, 2021. In one example, the straight line through the circles could represent a particular occurrence, say reconnecting with a long-time friend we seldom see. The 5 points where the line intersects a circle, while not connected sequentially in days or years, are connected by the commonality of the experience with one’s friend on each of those five days, all of which flows from and connect to the origins of the friendship.

As another example, the curved lines below the circles may represent the progression of certain types of growth that we experience outside of linear sequencing, which is how growth commonly occurs. We often say, “Three steps forward, two steps back,” to summarize non-sequential learning. Suppose we were introduced to a concept on April 4, 1994 (1st circle), but did not consider it again until some event on May 13, 2012 (4th circle), where something occurred not only to build on that concept, but also reminded us of events on February 7, 1999 (2nd circle) and September 21, 2007 (3rd circle) that further shed light on the concept. It is not until July 28, 2021 (5th circle), that we put the non-sequential pieces together into a meaningful whole. These five events are all related parts of the same thing, although they did not occur in sequential, chronological time – they occurred in experiential time. I believe many of our life-experiences, particularly those of a spiritual nature, occur in this non-chronological, non-sequential manner. We fail to perceive it because it does not fit our circular or linear models of time.

More next week…

The opinions expressed here are mine and not necessarily those of others. To engage with me or to explore contemplative spiritual direction, contact me at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com.

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