The Envy of the Gods

Chronos, old Father Time, is the specter that begins haunting people from the day they first discover they are growing old. Those who don’t come to terms with him must either crash on the rocks of life or find ingenious distractions in order to shut him out. But there is a way to help us come to terms with time, with our humanity, and with mortality. Devoting yourself to the arts—writing, reading novels and poetry, listening to music, dancing—is one means of wrestling with and learning to accept the world of time, with all the sorrows and glories that come along with it.

Time is a hindrance, time is one of our tragedies. We dose up on the drug of routine so that we forget time’s passage, until the bruising hand of death, change, and missed opportunities wakes us again. Nothing drags you down like the ache of those might-have-beens: the ruined love; the bedraggled, forgotten gift; the words you meant to say but didn’t; the communication that failed; the flower that wilted. The pain stings just as sharply every time that we, who desire the eternal, re-discover that we have somehow been locked out.

In her story “Circe,” the southern writer Eudora Welty describes time as a gift. I love Welty for the gentle, compassionate way she writes about the world and its people. It is not good, she says, for mortal creatures to look into eternity for long. The deathless isle of the goddess Circe was not for Odysseus, and it is not for us. We were made to live in a world of time, to discover truth by wending its long and twisting paths.

Mortal life is a bittersweet gift. We must grow old and die, we must love knowing we will lose, and we must experience heart-breaking grief. But we also know pleasures that immortal Circe will never know—the joy of reunions, the poignancy of happy moments cherished in the memory, and above all, the delight of storytelling, music-making, and art. In “Circe,” the pen and brush are gifts the gods long for but can never have.

These treasures are unique to the time world, but they constantly remind us of what lies beyond time. As it unfolds over a period of minutes, a symphony may reveal timeless beauty. By blocking out distractions and settling down in an easy chair to listen to a piece of music—feeling the tempo, hearing the sequences of melody and silence, and following the themes as they are developed and resolved—you accept and enter into time for the duration of the piece. In writing a poem or immersing yourself in a good novel, you enter into time and wrestle with it. Now you are no longer skimming along purposelessly over minutes and hours, nor are you letting yourself be undone by the bitterness of time. You are engaging in the struggle to discover the gem hidden deep within time’s maze, what T.S. Eliot calls the “still center”–the timeless moment, the place of beauty, where time and eternity intersect.

For both Eliot and Welty, art seems to be a means by which humans can know and share timeless moments within time. But both also recognize that a certain humility, as well as a kind of vision, are necessary to embrace time. One might call it faith. In his “Four Quartets,” Eliot calls it “A condition of complete simplicity/(Costing not less than everything)” that allows us to see that “All shall be well and /All manner of thing shall be well.”

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