The story of Rip-Van Winkle, written by Washington Irving and published in 1819, the story of how a man who fell asleep by a tree and woke up twenty years later. He first noticed the lapse of time when he realised that his wife had already passed and he needed a shave.
It’s a strange story that warns us of idleness and allowing time to pass us by unheeded. Therefore, it teaches us to think about our lives in terms of the hours and minutes that are available to us.
Rip Van Winkle’s wife was a nagger, she hounded him and pushed him, we presume, for this reason he ventured off for some peace and quiet in the mountains. There, he found a group of strangers who were drinking a strange brew, so he joined them. That was the last he remembered before waking.
We are all subject to the concept of time, eating away at our days. The pressure that we can feel when we really have to get something done, and we fail to admit that we have started late.
A project, a month, a few years and twenty, to follow a path in life that will lead to an accomplishment. All driven by the instinct to survive, and hopefully, enjoy life.
The feeling that time has passed is mostly accompanied by a bright realisation that we have missed something. The thoughts and memories that we carry with us help us to look back at moments in time that we cherished or hated, or were stressful and make us glad that they have passed.
Even when we look back, our brains make a selection that will fit our needs. The brain doesn’t replay the whole scene of an event for us, we remember the bits that matter. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, was certain that our brain will play tricks with our memories. What we remember doesn’t always reflect on what really happened. We fill in with interpretations that could be based on our present bias of how we see the world.
In the past, we were much younger and knew less about ourselves and the world in general. We would interpret events and so called facts in relation to our own view of the world. This, in turn, is coloured by what we have learned from the past. Eek, that sound a bit like a Catch 22 situation, and I think it is.
When Rip Van Winkle awoke from his 20 year sleep, he went back to his village and met the locals — he didn’t recognise anyone. He acted as if all was the same as twenty years earlier. When asked who he was, he proclaimed himself a loyal servant of King George. He could only draw on what he had learned about life of two decades earlier in his village. The American Revolution had been fought and politics had changed everything, King George III was no longer their king, George Washington was now the great leader of a new nation. Rip Van Wrinkle could have found himself in front of a firing squad.
Living our lives as if we had all the time in the world may be the curse of the 21st century. The availability of computers and technology to help us achieve our aims, the changing work ethic and the confusion caused by rapid changes to our social behaviour. These things are hard to deal with, maybe enough to put us to sleep, or maybe give us the feeling that we want to run to the hills and hide out.
Living life as if we knew that it mattered and choosing what we learn, what we do, and why we do something, may be a better key to fit the locks of memory and time. To follow principles that guide our thoughts along the tracks of life that we personally follow, may be the best way to ensure that we use life wisely and don’t end up in front of a self-selected firing squad.
Ageing brings deep thoughts, more about where we have been than where we are going. Most of us who have reached our fifties and sixties, tend to think of the past as a theme to our thoughts. This can be heard in conversations with middle-aged people.
Younger people, spend time thinking about where life is going and what they will do with the bags of time in front of them. I know this, because although I’m getting old, I was once young.
Many young people tend to hold a belief that older people have no idea about youth. How could they? They’re old.
Older people tend not to show any natural wisdom. The type of old-wives-tale wisdom that apparently comes with age. They often show the fruits of their life as it has been lived.
Old hippies who hang onto old beliefs that the revolution will come — and that, “yeah, it’s late, but it will happen”, are as bad as old Spitfire pilots who demand and command that people, “pull themselves together!”, when they obviously need a doctor. These types of people show us that memories are a selective process of thought, as much as our daily thinking is based on what we focus on at any moment in the day. We tend to have a grab-bag in our minds that we can use to counter an argument.
When we believe that we have knowledge of a subject and we involve ourselves in a debate, our objective being to win an argument, we tend to use forceful words that sound like the truth. Repetition of an idea, loudly and forcefully presented, will be listened to more than a whisper of truth only said once.
Often, to win the argument will be the benefit for us, more than reflecting on a truthful observation and conceding to a loss of face. After all, we entered into a social engagement that has rules of “win or lose”, written into the game-sheet.
Just take a look at the process of the British Government and the process of “Brexit”. Politicians can’t afford to lose face once they have started down a path, so they will forge through and hope that historians will focus on their determination in getting what they wanted, to tell the people of great leaders of the past. To write the best parts of the political actions of politicians into the memory of a nation, and to brush aside the incompetence, lack of knowledge of process and the deep biases that ruled their personal decisions to go forwards, in spite of signs of great danger.
Politicians work in complex situations that require deep knowledge of process in order to make useful decisions. They are overloaded with protocols and pointless discussions that eat away at their time, they often wing-it, but act as if they know what’s going on.
We live in a society that demands a lot from us, our time is taken up by others. Great business ideas that we can spend our time and energy on — to help others achieve their dreams, hoping that we will also get a chance to express our own ideas to create something of value.
Time passes and our brain records every moment, every action, and each reaction that we encounter.
Time is so important to us that we invent gadgets and schedules to help us remember the past, and to help us to work more effectively in the future.
If Rip Van Winkle had possessed a camera, he may have more quickly believed that twenty years had passed. Looking at pictures of himself and the past may have caused him to experience his encounter with the villagers differently and instead of being confused, questioned his own beliefs about who he was and where he had been.
Most of us use something to record the fleeting moments of life that we have. The way we record time is personal and the equipment used is relevant to how we see our lives. Some of us write things in a book, others take photos in the hope that they will build a narrative that shows progression and curves of a life well spent. Others use music and reading books to remember periods of time that have passed.
Most of us also use the mirror to see our physical selves and reflect on time passing.
Youth, eagerly peers into the mirror in search of adulthood, and the ageing face of middle-age searches for clues to the past. What we get from all these memories is a reflection of who we are, where we have been, and how it feels to be older. We hope that photos, mirrors and writings will help us recognise something about our identities.
Memory gives us chunks of information that help us identify with the world around us, to orientate on what’s happening now and how to react according to our beliefs.
To have twenty years of life erased from memory, is as good as never having lived it. Those missing moments are of no use to others if you and I can’t remember them.
The world is a big place. It is complex and full of the shouts of dogmas and systems that proclaim to have found the final answer to everything. It’s failure is that it doesn’t much take the individual life of humans into account when a new system of belief or living life is invented. It is self-centred.
We record our lives, we can’t not do this. It is part of our survival instinct to remember where the dangers lie in wait to take something from us.
Memory records action, and most of us appreciate the value of being busy with meaningful activities, and that idleness is an enemy that only encourages the worst sloth in human nature.
We will become what we remember, we will act according to memories kept in one way or another. Even when we need to have quiet moments in our lives to sit and view photos and books, to reflect and deeply think about who we really are, our memories will be selected according to our actions from the past.
The psychologist Carl Jung was probably right about how we recollect. Our thoughts gravitate to things liked and loved, we will remember that we have had a decent life, acted well and helped others when we could. Even if some of those memories are mixed up dreams, or faulty narrative, we can do nothing about it now.
Only as we witness time passing, as we live as a wide-awake person, can we be sure that memories will reflect clearly in the mirror of time, and that our thoughts are happy ones that have no guilt and shame in them.
Catch 22 may be an unfair fact of life, but the paradox of existence in time and space is not our personal responsibility, life itself is.