Children and Time

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July 18, 2013 by lucieromarin

If you ever find yourself in conversation with a child under the age of six – or, more accurately, if you ever find yourself on the receiving end of an under-6’s enthusiastic monologue about his recent activities, wait till he pauses for breath, and then say, “Was this last week?” Watch his facial expression as his intellect reaches into the depths of his memory and understanding, before settling on, “I don’t know.”

The child’s developing sense of time is fascinating. Recently (three weeks ago, in fact!) a three-year-old informed me that dinosaurs lived a long time ago and then asked me if I’d ever seen one. I realised that he didn’t ask because I looked millenially aged to him; he asked because, for him, time existed in only two separate categories. There was Now, and there was the Past. Dinosaurs lived in the past. So did the grown-up. Ergo.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a six-and-a-half year old. He had a number of siblings, and we were enjoying a reminiscence along the lines of, “I remember when Jill was four…I remember when Jill was two…I remember when Jill was nought!!!” Eventually, I said to him, “You know, I remember when you were nought!” and he exclaimed, “I wasn’t nought!” It was as though the whole of creation had come into being upon day of his birth, and his parents’ own childhoods were sort of retrospectively created – rather like the fossils in one Protestant theory of creation, which came into being 4,000 years ago deliberately designed to look millions of years old.

Sometimes it seems to me that, while children’s bodies exist temporally, just as ours do, their minds are somehow hanging out in the aeveternity of the angels and saints. I know that there is no pre-mortal realm, so their minds can’t actually have been left behind therein; I’m just saying that it’s easy to imagine this to be so. They know ‘before’ and ‘after’, like the angels and saints, and existence consists of a series of actions, but there’s nothing in between each action; that’s why they can only tell you if something happened Before, and cannot tell you if it was a week or a year ago.

I bet this is also why a long ceremony or a long dinner or any situation in which they have to sit still for a while is such torture for them. I mean, I know it can be torture for us, too, and I know it’s partly because the infants are full of jumping beans and want to be leaping about in puddles and things, but I do think that it’s also because they’re so very much in the present moment, and are are so unable to measure time, that they can’t really believe they’ll ever be out of the agonising, enduring present. We can sit there and say to ourselves that it has to end eventually; they actually can’t console themselves thus, because they don’t know that it will.

It’s pretty funny to think that we start out life this way, then change and learn about time, and then discover that to become a master of the spiritual life you have to forget everything you ever learned, become like little children, and care only about the grace of the present moment. Someone, somewhere, is chuckling to himself about this.

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