Modern man has always had an uneasy relationship with time. Whether it is the continued diminishment of the speed with which things are accomplished or understanding something that is inherently human and true of any epoch (not, in other words, unique to our own “time”), we appear to be unstable when we try to define time. Nowadays, it’s even worse: We don’t care about the definition of time and we’re letting time lead us from one existential instability to the next.
People have always been attracted to trends as a way to escape the burden of hours they face, whether consciously or unconsciously. Today, this escape has brought further instability which is unsurprising. We seem to live in several realities at once. One reality is governed by the virtual world, another by an embodied world, and we’re all caught somewhere in between, trying to make sense of it all.
Information overload is a concept that has been talked about a lot, especially in the early days of the Internet. Many predicted it would befall us and outlined its parameters, but since the problem wasn’t fully manifested, it didn’t really get addressed. It was easier to ignore it. But now, the complete overload has become a way of being. Human beings are not made to be aware of everything, all the time, all at once. This is a society that will drive itself insane, if it hasn’t already.
It may seem facile to single out the issue of time, but it’s not as simplistic as it seems. How we relate to time is also an indication of how we relate to life and, ultimately, how we will relate to death. The denial of death is not a novel concept or reality for human beings. Part of human expression is fear and denial of death, and it’s directly correlated to man’s relationship to God.
Today’s technology and several virtual realities have moved man even farther away from his relationship to the mystery of being. Time seems to exist only in relation to fleeting moments of online meaninglessness. (Of course, this is not true of everyone. But generally speaking, we can conclude that a different disposition is created through our relation to technology’s hold and control.)
We rarely talk about human finitude. Human life is fragmented, given our imperfections, but it is our relationships that create a sense of wholeness. (This is why the current atomization of society is incredibly dangerous and destructive to the soul.) As Viktor Frankl points out in The Doctor and the Soul, “[T]he meaning of the human person as a personality points beyond its own limits, toward community; in being directed toward community, the meaning of an individual transcends itself.” In other words, relationships are essential to a life of goodness and happiness, and to understanding our place in time.
Being aware of death is an important step in how we view life. Today’s superficialities and instant gratifications, which have only intensified in recent years, are great distractions from seeking authentic meaning in life. True, it is almost impossible to find such meaning in a world that is unstable, but we have to dig into the strength of the spirit and faith. In other words, we have to be aware of time. Wasted hours cannot be reclaimed, which is why it’s essential, if we expect to find any meaning in life, to comprehend (even partially and imperfectly) the importance of time. As Frankl writes, “In time and in finiteness man must finish something—that is, take finiteness upon himself and consciously accept an end as part of the bargain.”
Frankl is not talking about giving up when he says to accept an end. On the contrary, he is alluding to the significance of responsibility and also, imagination. “Finality, temporality,” Frankl writes, “is therefore not only an essential characteristic of human life, but also a real factor in its meaningfulness. The meaning of human existence is based upon its irreversible quality. An individual’s responsibility in life must therefore be understood in terms of temporality and singularity.”
In order to direct any sphere of life toward the right ends, we have to build a society that is fully aware of human finitude, and one that grasps what constitutes the essence of the human person if we wish to see any progress toward a meaningful future. We don’t want to fly into oblivion, brought down by hubris.
It’s almost irrelevant what kind of technology will emerge next. This kind of technical progress will always bring up the question of what it means to be human. What’s most significant is that we do not reject the questions that arise from such progress. Indeed, that may be precisely what such progress is for. The moment of authentic reality is illuminated when we explore the regions of being human. We should not turn away from this light but embrace the existential questions, as well as the affirmation of human finitude that brings us closer to the meaning of life.