The Topic At Hand: Seconds

When I was a kid, I had trouble reading clocks.  This was back when people still used analog clocks pretty often. I don’t even know what percentage of parents bother to teach their children to tell time now, considering how common digital clocks are in the contemporary age. But when I was young, it was still a necessary skill, and one I couldn’t get the hang of.

This inspired my mother to create a story to help me—I’ll admit now it didn’t exactly help me, but that’s not the point—in which the main characters were the hour hand and the minute hand of a clock.  The hour hand was short and fat and moved leisurely around the dial while the minute hand was tall and thin because he kept up a speedy pace.  As I remember it, the two hands met up at the appropriate times, and the minute hand would tease the hour hand about how slowly he went—at noon, he’d say something like, “well, I’ll have gone all the way around again by the time you’ve moved to the 1, so I’ll see you at 1:05, slowpoke!”


These kinds of details were meant to help me conceptualize how time measurement worked, but I was more interested in the fat little cartoon of an hour hand my mother had drawn, and the idea that the two hands would have a tempestuous relationship.  The climax of the story was that the hour hand tried to catch up to the minute hand—but when he began to go faster, he found he grew taller and thinner, while the minute hand was forced to go even faster and become even skinnier himself—the minute hand became a second hand, so the relationship remained the same.  By the end the characters had determined the experiment was a failure and that their different roles were both noble—or something like that.

In one sense, to me, their roles were more confusing than ever.  Their speeds could be altered, but were connected—didn’t they want to understand why?  Their shapes changed as their velocity changed—surely they wanted to know why? They could only shift into a specific set of other speeds, not, it seemed, any other speed they wished—a reason for this had to exist! And if their destiny was to go round and round this clock-face for as long as their gears would let them, was there not an interest within them to discover the source of this fate, the creator of the clock who wanted to measure time, the planetary rotation that led to the length they measured, the history of splitting that cycle by 12, rather than, for instance, making some kind of metric clock. There seemed to be so many mysteries they could have investigated but instead, they were satisfied to accept the roles bestowed upon them because one attempt to question things had gone awry.


I can’t help thinking human life has something in common with those clock-hands, that sense of measuring out the days doing the same thing. Going round and round is just what humans do, repeating actions with only the slightest changes, eating, cleaning, working, sleeping, and measuring the time that elapses as we do these things.  Practitioners of philosophy are supposed to reflect on and write about life, to try to spend the time to think about it well, but the outcome is usually not so different from what has been said by previous writers—just the slightest changes to the circular tour. But perhaps the options are something like this: you can be a working clock happy in a well designed role, or a broken clock of some kind or other, one who’s lost track of time in search of understanding, failed at the task of measurement because of larger distractions.  You can lose sight of seconds trying to take that second look.

This failure of philosophy is something I have always felt, and I have rejected studying it for this reason, like some inversion of the rabbi turning away the convert, until finally it seemed like my interest was mature enough to understand what I was getting into. When I was young I found philosophy interesting, but also figured everyone did, and that it was a bit silly to go to school to study something that takes seriously the same questions two year olds pose, or stoned 15 year olds, or really anyone who stares at a wall too long.  But I spent about five years after graduation trying out other kinds of work, and it became increasingly clear it was basically no less silly to play the games of grown-ups in cubicles.  And philosophers don’t really give the same kinds of answers as the two-year olds, at least not most of the time.

So I hesitantly returned to school, less concerned about where it would lead than simply intrigued by the flood of ideas I hadn’t yet explored.  Going back was familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.  That feeling seems the root of all our speculation.  It’s the crossover between the passage of time, and the experience of memory, that evokes the philosophical question—the first one, the primal one, being, “why?”

This question, in its simplest form, is looking for a longer story, the cause of the effect observed.  An awareness that stays glued to moments cannot see this bigger picture.  It is only in perceiving passing time that I can understand the connections between events, and begin to ask for pasts and futures to explain the present—instigations and goals that help to contextualize what is happening now.  And it seems to me passing time is only understood when a person recognizes something as similar enough to something in the past to understand it as the second time—that it is like a preceding moment, but not that moment.

Once this is comprehended, life becomes both meaningful and also very hard to accept. After the apple is bitten, it’s clear that each second that I’m alive is unique, an individual, unrepeated moment.  Somehow this seems unbearable at times, to think that every instant I experience is lost forever as soon as I encounter it. But that’s what makes those moments so valuable: life is a series of entirely singular events.

I’m a little under 36 years old.  Each day has 86,400 seconds, each year about 31.5 million.  So, I’ve lived for more than 1.13 trillion seconds.  A lot of these I haven’t really noticed, of course. I was asleep for a good third of it, to start with, though some of my dreams undoubtedly contained bona fide tathata.  It’s more the routines of everyday life that slip by, which is why I think I’ve always been drawn to try to catch the scenes of my life in the rear-view mirror, by writing, reflecting, on the meaning of it all.

Of course, as much as you look, you can’t change the speed of the vehicle, and it probably makes more sense to keep your eye on the road, but my curiosity about the journey itself isn’t easy to turn away from.  I’ve concluded several times that it’s pointless, there are no answers, and I should do something more utilitarian with the brief collection of moments I find myself allotted with, but as reasonable a position as that is, my mind always wanders back to an interest in understanding how the clock works instead of using it to tell the time.


Photos by the author.

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    • Tara

      I love the idea of the clock hands engaging each other, and it's interesting that in your mother's story, it was a somewhat antagonistic relationship. Maybe because of all our anxiety about time in general. There could be different systems of time, like the rabbinic one where the lengths of hours change depending on the distribution of daylight, but the usefulness of time-telling pretty much depends on its predictability and uniformity – which I suppose kind of guarantees that it will be arbitrary.

    • When I was little and I couldn't sleep, I would sometimes try counting imaginary sheep jumping over an imaginary fence. (This image must have come from Sesame Street, since sheep can't actually jump… can they?) The sheep that had already cleared the railing would gather on the far side, until they formed a dense enough crowd that no other sheep could come across. And I was still awake.

    • SusanSfarra

      It's like the second viewing of a movie, you notice a lot of details you missed the first time.

    • Eric Eicher

      This is my favorite sentence here: “But I spent about five years after graduation trying out other kinds of work, and it became increasingly clear it was basically no less silly to play the games of grown-ups in cubicles.” Different stripes of silly really do seem to be what we're faced with, when it comes to choosing how we spend our time here. But that's ultimately an upbeat take on things, since “silly,” especially given it's long and interesting history, is, in the end, a rather pleasant thing to be. Wittgentstein in CULTURE AND VALUE: “For a philosopher there is more grass growing down in the valleys of silliness than up on the barren heights of cleverness.”

    The Author

    Miranda Nell

    Miranda Nell is working on completing a PhD in philosophy, and currently teaches in the NYC area. She has presented at various conferences and published a few reviews, in journals like Science And Society and Philosophical Frontiers. Her undergraduate interests were more artistically focused, however, and many of her personal projects explore creative avenues, including the visual, poetic and theatrical arts. She co-produced the Wantler Readings at Galapagos Space, published the Drink Me zine, was part of the film Puzzlehead, was published in the magazine Warped Reality, and organized the Sister Spit East open mic series, among other things. She has a comatose blog that may yet come back to life.

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