It’s official: Despite all the premillennial hoopla, time, like an ever-rolling stream, is still rolling along. The world did not end last week after all; global communications did not break down; and nobody needed those carefully stored bottles of drinking water.A sense of postmillennial ennui in fact began just as soon as the first fireworks exploded somewhere in the western Pacific last Saturday morning. Forty minutes after a raucous, star-spangled midnight in New York, Times Square was rapidly emptying out. Here in Tokyo, people got up again after a late night of celebrating to discover that the world looked much as it had on Friday, if in slightly greater need of a garbage pickup. One week later, Y2K, once the hottest media issue around, is as cold as ashes. Everyone is back at work, no doubt wondering what all the fuss was about.

Time, of course, is like that, always ready to douse our petty moments of excitement with the cold water of the morning after. Nothing stops its relentless flow, from the death of kings to the demise of empires, from the end of a world war to the end of “Peanuts.” It is with good reason that we reassure someone overwhelmed with grief or loss, “It’s not the end of the world” — although that is exactly how it seems at the time. And the classic fairy-tale sign-off — “they lived happily ever after” — is as much a nod to the simple assurance of continuity as to the much chancier promise of happiness. As Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman reminded us, if there is one thing as certain in this world as death and taxes, it is that time goes by.

There are various ways to take this granite fact. Poets, mystics and philosophers — humanity’s most highly sensitized and articulate spokespeople — are generally convinced that time’s meaningless flow can be transcended and infused with meaning by lightning-flashes of illumination. “Spots of time,” the poet William Wordsworth called them: moments that could change a life, or at least, when remembered in tranquillity, define it.

That’s all very nice if you are a poet with the requisite sensibility, not to mention the means, to recognize the spots of time as they float brightly by. The fact is, Wordsworth was almost certainly not talking about such artificial, mass, epochal moments as New Millennium’s Eve in Times Square or Big Sight. He was talking about private, random moments on mountaintops or lonely roads, solitary and unplanned. For that kind of experience, you need not only imagination but also leisure, which in this day and age, unfortunately, means money.

Most of us — ordinary, unimaginative, harried folk with job demands, families, mortgages and the rest of it — have to cope with time’s flattening and erosive tendencies in more pedestrian ways. We keep getting up in the morning. We look forward to lunch. We get a bit depressed when the party is over — when the lights go out and the street cleaners arrive in the cold light of day — but we get over it. Mainly we do this by whipping up enthusiasm for the next prescribed occasion of significance, high or low, from seasonal rituals and religious or communal events to annual holidays or somebody’s birthday. The good part about not being a philosopher or a poet is not feeling obliged to be profound or creative. If the onward march of time starts to wear us down, we can always respond, as solemn old Wordsworth could not, with a little prepackaged yet life-enhancing frivolity.

In the meantime, it is good to know there are professionals around whose job it is to keep time in check. Some of them even came up with the bright idea of naming a magazine after it, as if to say: All right, Time, do your worst, roll on obliviously; we are with you every step of the way, distilling your vast, formless essence week by week into digestible little pellets of timeliness. (In a brilliantly apt stroke earlier this week, Time magazine announced as its person of the century Albert Einstein, the man who put time into a whole new perspective at the dawn of the modern era.)

Then there are the timekeepers, like Britain’s Mr. Brian Davis, who last week retired as the official guide at Big Ben, London’s legendarily reliable clock, or the folks at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, who on Dec. 30 unveiled an atomic clock so accurate it makes Big Ben look like a sundial. Why it should matter that there exists in Boulder, Colo., a clock that will neither gain nor lose a second in 20 million years is unclear. Maybe it is all just a question of who’s master, as Humpty Dumpty said. Time may hunt us to our graves, it may mock our biggest celebrations with its cold tomorrows, but in the end, it is comforting to know, we have its number to the nanosecond.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.