Friday, April 7

Temporality

tem-po-ral-i-ty
n. pl. tem-po-ral-i-ties
  1. The condition or quality of being temporal or bounded in time.
It is Benjamin Franklin who is quoted in that famous statement about the inevitability of death and taxes, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Electric Ben is speaking about the two things he sees as constants in the world we live in, and one of those constant things is that nothing--not even my own life in this world--lasts forever. Everything, in a temporal world, is limited.

If you were to ask me what the one constant of our temporal world is, I think I'd say it's change. Everything is always changing; nothing ever stays the same. And change invariably brings loss along with it, even when it isn't the oh-so-final loss of the ultimate change that comes with death itself. Loss is there even in the kinds of change that we think of as positive change. Change is moving from one thing to another, and moving always means leaving something behind. When we get married, for instance, we vow to "forsake all others". Making that vow is a positive step--an excellent thing--but it's a step that closes the doors to possibilities and opportunities that existed previously, at least if we do as we've pledged.

If you are older than twenty, you probably understand this, at least a little. You've lived long enough to have experienced the loss that happens even when we move forward in our lives. And the more life experience we have, the more we're aware of the constancy of change and loss. It's not something we like to think a lot about, because it points to the ever-present insecurity of our lives.

One of the good things about getting married, to go back to the previous example, is the security it offers. I forsake all others for only one who promises to forsake all others for only me. We promise never to change our allegiances but to "keep me only unto thee", no matter what other circumstances around us change, whether things get better or worse, whether we become richer or poorer, whether we stay healthy or not. The pledge of marriage is a pledge to have unchanging loyalties in a changing world.

And yet even in marriage, as wonderful and secure as it is, at least compared to the insecurity of many other things in our lives, there is something insecure and temporary written right within the vow we take. The security of the pledge only goes "as long as we both shall live." And as Ben Franklin reminded us, the end of that pledge is one of the certainties of life in a temporal world.

Temporality automatically brings with it futility. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes understood that:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
We work hard, and we think we're making progress, but any gains are only temporary. Even the progress made by a whole generation of people working amounts to nothing at all in the end. The earth, says the Preacher, stays the same. The same, that is, in its ever-present cycle of change and loss. The promise of a new day fades into the evening. The promise of spring turns into the harvest of summer, which turns into the rotting of fall and the death of winter.

Since the Preacher's time, we've had many more generations that simply give reinforcement to his statements. Nothing that we see or hear completely satisfies us; we always long for more and for longer: For permanent newness, for never-ending promise. And we can't have it. We only get the briefest glimpses of newness and promise, but we cannot grasp them and keep them forever for ourselves.

Not in a temporal world. There is no real hope, but only what is finally futile, in temporality.
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