‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it can only be lived forwards.’ These are the words of Søren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher, theologian and poet. I was at a conference last week where one of the speakers, from Denmark, drew extensively from the work of Kierkegaard. When he told us he was going to delve into some of the great scholar’s existentialist philosophy, I thought, ‘Oh no, time for a snooze,’ but Kierkegaard won me over. What a balancing act our lives are; looking forward, plotting and planning, while making sense of the past through a healthy balance of reflection, memory and, as C. once suggested to me, ‘forgettance’. As part of your forward trajectory, you might have charted a five-year plan, perhaps simply reaching the end of the year is your goal, or maybe you adopt the simple approach of, ‘one day at a time’. However we choose to live and move forward, I agree with Kierkegaard: even if we don’t know it, our past influences how we understand and approach the future.
Along with the certainty that policemen are getting younger, and that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, it is a also truth universally acknowledged that time goes faster, and the future becomes the present becomes the past more quickly, the older you get. Or is it? No more than Austen can summon all rich, eligible men to hasten up the aisle, I don’t adhere to the idea that the more years on one’s clock, the faster time passes. Yes, it does feel as though some weeks go quickly, whilst others crawl sluggishly, with neither rhyme nor reason as to why. I used to believe that time passing quickly, or slowly, was correlated to how occupied or empty one’s day was. There is no correlation. The Shepherd master clock in Greenwich guarantees that every second, minute, and hour is the same one day to the next. I think the future-present-past topple of dominoes appears to fall faster because we become more fixated with time as we age.
Where are my meaningless meanderings leading? Nowhere much; they are self-indulgent thought swirls, as December seems an appropriate month for philosophising. Winter is inward, introspective, a time for mulled thoughts and wine. Sitting up late with a dram, talking things over by a flickering fire and lit candles. Summer nights are expansive and expectant; they move us outward and forward, we look ahead to the far horizon. Winter makes me peer into life’s rear wing mirror and, as Kierkegaard says, ‘understand backwards’ as the year contracts.
This week, on the phone to M., we reminisced about winter 1991. She has a great memory, she handed me verbal prompts as I tried to gaze back through 27 years of haze. I felt like I was recalling a different life and a different person. I had that overwhelming feeling that life isn’t short at all, as the cliché goes, but it’s actually really long – even from this point of middle age. Then there comes a time to stop peering and mulling and seeking to understand, for, as Kierkegaard also said, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”
‘Young and Old’, Charles Kingsley
When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away;
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day.
When all the world is old, lad,
And all the trees are brown;
And all the sport is stale, lad,
And all the wheels run down;
Creep home, and take your place there,
The spent and maimed among:
God grant you find one face there,
You loved when all was young.