What meaning does time have in human life? We often ask ourselves this question. Like many other creatures, a human can exist only in a limited period – on one’s own life timeline. It is an unavoidable element of human existence.
All creatures, including a human being, exist in time but also in space, because of their physical characteristics. What does it mean? They have bodies, which take up some space, but also keep us mobile not only in physical but also mental sense. So, moving bodies and taking action requires time. Thanks to it, time is so important in human life that, although humans move and live in space; they describe distances in space with time units. For example, I can come to this store in 15 minutes.
This observation can lead to the conclusion that time plays an even more meaningful role in human reality than space. Dean Buonomano, the author of the book Your Brain Is a Time Machine. The Neuroscience and Physics of Time notice: This asymmetry has been put forth as evidence that our ability to conceptualize time is built upon our understanding of space (Buonomano, 2018, 185).
Laps of Time
Why is time so important in human life? We are so familiar with time in everyday life that we do not notice its laps. But, time is like a quiet sly thief in the lives of many people. Why? Because time takes away some possibilities forever, and it is probably the most common way of an understanding of time.
Our understanding of time is rooted in our brains. According to Buonomno: […] mentally speaking, not only do the past and future exist, but they are valid to travel destinations. Indeed our species is defined in part by our incessant tendency to mentally hop back and forth between the past, present, and future (Buonomno, 2018, 194).
The problem of time appears in the considerations of existentialists. One of them is Roman Ingarden. In his Little Book on Man, a separate chapter is dedicated to this problem. Ingarden distinguished three aspects of time: past, present, and future.
The Meaning of the Past in the Timeline
The past is an important part of everyone’s life. It is obvious that every creature in the world has a past that has an impact on further life. But in the case of humans, the past is more difficult than for other creatures, because of the complex internal world full of thoughts and reactions; instinct and feelings; dreams and imaginations.
Ingarden writes even about the curse of the past. What is it? It refers to the committed and long-time faults which still have an influence on human life. The curse causes a person to get stuck in the past so much that special means are necessary to be able to go back.
My past is so far in my every-time present that a separate act is needed to free oneself from its embrace. As if it had not passed what has passed as if there is no time (Ingarden, 1987, 47).
For this reason, many people are living in the past. Unfortunately, the past leaves not only the memories but the patterns of behaviors and reactions as well. Furthermore, people react to similar behaviors, situations, even in a physical similarity to someone from their past, or the character of a relationship. In this sense, we can say that one is a hostage of one’s own past.
For this reason, people still keep coming back to the events from years ago. So, I am afraid that this problem can be resolved only by therapy in the lives of many people.
The Shape of Memories
Why has the past had such an enormous influence on human life? From a psychological point of view, the past exists in our minds in the form of our memories. According to Antonio Damasio, the following have an influence on shaping our past:
Attention to events,
Emotion we are experiencing at that moment,
Manner in which our memory records the events,
Inferences when we perceive and recall these events (Damasio, 2012).
In conclusion, creating the past in the human brain is a complex mental process. It begins in the present when something happens which is the content of future memories. In addition, the sphere of memories has also influenced the present at the moment of recalling these events.
So, the impact of the present is even doubled in human reality, which makes it tricky. As a result, the memories can be very far from the actual character of events in the present. Especially because our memories are controlled by different centers in the human mind: hippocampus – the creation of fresh memories; temporal lobe—retrieving the existing memories; basal forebrain—the chronological order of events (Cf. Damasio, 2012, 45).
The Future in the Timeline
Everyone sometimes thinks about the future. People have a different or sometimes even opposite imagination of their future. Probably, the most important element of this process is the power of suggestion. It is like a self-fulfilling prophecy that is realized even against or independent of the will of an interested person.
In the structure of the brain, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for the future, especially for the planning of future events. Unfortunately, in the context of the human timeline, this problem is even more complex.
Future-oriented mental time travel is a complicated task that requires the orchestration of a number of different cognitive functions, including assessing past episodic and semantic memories, using these memories to conjure scenario’s, understanding the difference between the past and future, and the ability to judge whether the simulated outcome is desirable or not (Buonamono, 2018, 212).
To clarify, the semantic memories are connected to names, while the episodic memories to impressions from events.
In this case, access to memories is possible thanks to the temporal lobes, which are manipulated by the prefrontal cortex in dreams, and individual narrations of a person.
Consciousness and Timeline
According to Ingarden, an influence of attitude and self-suggestion is so strong, that it creates reality and shapes the person. In this sense, the future appears in the present as a predictable pattern of realization. People usually undergo a timeline unconsciously. Unfortunately, only a few people have such strong self-suggestion to create their lives consciously.
For this reason, people are often convinced that a conscious realization of their will determines their success in life. The activity of a subject is the opposition of the passivity of an object. Of course, it is demanding for conscious people to be a subject.
Being active in the timeline requires control of your own reality, therefore activity creates an attitude of being in opposition to the surrounding reality. It is a heroic attitude of a person against the world.
Responsibility in the Timeline
From this point of view, a human is in a comfortable situation because one is in charge. But, it also means that one is responsible for one’s reality. It could be a great burden, especially for very sensitive or not mentally strong people. In this case, a position of the subject with free will can be an existential trap, because of an overwhelming feeling of responsibility which can even sabotage an activity.
Another way of looking at it is that the pressure connected to free will can be so strong that it can even lead to rebelling against it. Are you surprised? How differently can we call a glorification of an attitude which hits in a sense of morality in modern art? I think here about a phenomenon of fascination with evil in the modern world. For example, Killing Eve which is a story about a charming psychopathic female assassin. So, free will can place a human in dramatic challenges that can make one appreciate an attitude that is an opposition of responsibility and morality.
Willingness and Willfulness in Timeline
However, does it mean that there is a no different option? I think an interesting alternative is a willingness. It is an attitude that does not deny the subjectivity of the human being but stays free from moral pressure. In this approach, humans resign from the role of superior and are content with being a part of reality. Thanks to it, a person has more room in the mental sense and stays open for the opportunities which create the world.
A person preferring an opposite attitude called wilfulness can miss a chance to enjoy a variety of the world. Wilfulness is associated with focusing on some solutions, emotions, and behaviours, and omitting others. There is some sense of limitation of perception involved. In Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, it is recommended as a way to widen consciousness and calming an emotional life.
Fear and Hope of the Future
Coming back to the problem of the future, the leading feeling linked to this aspect of time is fear and concern, but also expectation and hope. For this reason, the future is a cumulation of the negative as well as positive emotions. The feelings can be so strong and domineering that they can determine the future. To clarify, the future can be arranged in a reasonable way.
Usually, the future is a consequence of more or less conscious decisions that become the reality of a person at some point. These decisions are made with some emotional impact of the previous experiences. In this way, emotions connect the past and the future in human life. Therefore, it is so important to stay in touch, and in control of them.
Point on the Timeline
We can say that our present is a current day, this week, thus the month or even the year, but, in fact, the present is only a moment which disappears all the second after the second, while after a while.
In this sense, the present is a string of the passing moment. For this reason, the present is always only a point in time. So, Ingarden says about limitations to the present as an essence of time (Ingarden, 1987).
The present is in this sense an abstract term which we can consider mainly only theoretically as a physical or mathematical problem.
So I overcome time by living in a natural and primal way so that I don’t feel limited by the boundaries of the present, which I constantly cross (Ingarden, 1987, 48).
In other words, it is natural to live outside of time, because awareness of continuous, consistent, and implacable passing of time is impossible for humans.
Transcendence of the Present on the Timeline
For Ingarden, transcendence is a solution, it means overcoming some aspects of time. In other words, as a human being, everyone can see the experience of time from a distance.
Human can transcend to:
the conscious experiences,
experience of every moment of life,
everything is a part of the past and future.
It explains the phenomenal character of time as a versatile reality (Ingarden, 1987, 48). What does it mean?
Analyzing different life situations I notice how fragile human life is, and how easily one can lose a life. In this sense, one is in charge of time.
Ingarden notices: The existence of something that is real does not flow from its essence and is not necessary (Ingarden, 1987, 49). So, the existence of something depends on some circumstances and coincidences. Therefore, everything that is real can be damaged by removing something that is a condition of its existence, for example, meaningful statues of human civilization, pieces of art, philosophical systems, and intellectual theories.
The Present as the Ephemeral Moment
For this reason, the present is like a moment that will soon drown in the abyss of the non-existence of the past.
No matter how much we transcend our present and consider ourselves to be permanent and independent from time, we always find ourselves as if on a knife-edge between two abysses of non-existence: what is no more and what is not yet existing (Ingarden, 1987, 50).
From this point of view, human life is only an ephemeral moment, which disappears quickly. It is even hard to understand how human beings can exist in a mental sense because it is normal that fear of non-existence is a constant companion of human life. Being in time, is in this sense, like existence in constant danger.
It is hard to deny that every moment of our present can be the last one, every second, every decision can have fatal for human life consequences. There are moments when a wrong judgment of a situation is enough to cause the death of a person. This fragility of human life is very hard to accept.
Existential Point and the Timeline
Present as “now”—a point in time. Every moment of human life is only a point, sometimes full of experiences and events. Life of every person is a sum of an uncountable number of moments—existential points.
Although a moment of one’s life can be memorable for one, from a point of view of physics it is the only point in time without content.
To clarify now is a moment which runs away very quickly. It almost automatically has begun to be the past. Human beings are dependent on this almost elusive present. Every time we think about our existence we are in this ephemeral moment of their own existence. For this reason, Ingarden asks for the meaning of human beings in this time reality.
An elusive character of time makes human existence something difficult to define. In every moment we live now, but this now almost is impossible to notice and understand as an event in time. But, these minor pieces of time are a composition of our private history of life. On the other hand, we remember these moments which are full of feelings, despite their neutral character in the light of science.
Buonomano D. (2018). Your Brain Is a Time Machine. The Neuroscience and Physics of Time, London: W.W.Norton&Company, Kindle Edition,
Damasio A. (2012). How the Brain Creates a Chronology of Consciousness, Scientific American. Special Edition, vol. 27, 42-47,
Ingarden R. (1987). The Little Book about Human [Książeczka o człowieku] , Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie.