Starting lines

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - January 5, 2021 - 12:00am

In the pantheon of hated antagonists throughout human history, the year 2020 has reserved a special place for itself. Whenever the latest in the parade of seemingly inevitable tragedies and catastrophes would occur, it was common to see social media filled with hateful comments flung against 2020. In fact, before the year was even over, it had already inspired a Netflix special mock-celebrating its demise (aptly titled “Death to 2020”).

While there are certainly some people believe that some years – or zodiacs, or alignments of stars – are inherently seeded with misfortune, it’s safe to say that most people who curse 2020 merely do so out of a sense of powerlessness and frustration. There has just been so much hardship, so much sorrow, coming from unexpected places in such a short period of time. Many of us are tired and wrung out, our sense of a fair order to the universe savaged by grief and loss. There seems to be no sense to what is happening to us, no simple and singular cause that we can blame for the many crises. They do, however, share at least one thing in common.

Hence: “Death to 2020.”

In these situations, time makes a fitting scapegoat. Of all the things that shape our lives, time is both the most omnipresent and the most mysterious. We can feel it pass but can never “feel” it tangibly; we can observe the changes it brings but can never “observe” it directly. Time changes everything, conquers everything – but nothing can change time, or conquer it, or even touch it. When we view it as an enemy, there is no more indomitable, incomprehensible, terrifying enemy than time. Time is, as the philosopher Plato once wrote, “the moving image of eternity.”

It’s not the way of human beings, however, to ignore mysteries. The fact that we cannot touch or understand something has never gotten in the way of our desire to learn about it, or our need to make use of it. The way that we have related to time is no different. First, we measured it by the workings of nature – the movement of the sun and the moon, the arrangements of the stars in the sky. For those not along the equator, the passage of the seasons became an important guide to the plans of individuals and civilizations, serving as a metaphor for life itself. Later on, the precision of technology took the place of the natural order, with the invention of the clock and, later on, the watch. With more precision came more divisions, from seasons to months to hours and seconds. The smallest official unit of time today is the zeptosecond – a trillionth of a billionth of a second.

But the unit of time that we most commonly organize our lives around is the year. It is how we reckon our own age and all that involves – ages of majority, of liability, of retirement. Your measure in years determines many of the things that you can or cannot do, what you are or are not responsible for, a shorthand for the state of our minds and bodies. We set our cycles of remembrance by the year – birthdays, reunions, summer vacations… anniversaries of birth and death, of things beginning and things ending.

Yet for all our divisions, the naming that is so often seen to give power to the namer, we know that we cannot control time. The numbers on the calendar and the clock are arbitrary things. There is nothing tangible that says this solar cycle is 2021, or that makes the first of January quantitatively different from the 31st of December. Time is a ceaseless river, not something with inherent divisions.

Nonetheless, even if we cannot control time, when we mark it, we make it usable for us. After all, humans have proved that we don’t need to control something to be able to use it for our ends. We can’t control the wind, but we can use it to propel us forward if we adjust our sails just the right way. We cannot make time stop for us, but we can determine for ourselves what its passage means.

This line is when you were born.

This line is a year after, and when it comes, we will celebrate you.

This line is when grandmother died.

This line is a year after, and when it comes, we will remember her.

It is human nature to make lines, to float them on the flow of time and use them to distinguish one moment from the next, one year from the last. Time eventually brings all things to dust, but we can make marks that help interpret what exactly it is that ends for us, and what it is that begins, and what meaning these will have in our lives.

The marks we place on time are arbitrary, but no more so than the lines on a track and field oval. You can place those lines anywhere, but once you’ve laid them down, once you’ve decided this is the start and that is the end, you infuse meaning onto the ground beneath your feet. It’s not an endless loop any longer but a track – bound by rules, where you know your goals and the parameters for victory.

There is a beauty to eternity, to the mystery of the indivisible. But there is also something to be said for being able to end things, to leave them behind and to start anew.

The transition from one calendar year to the next does not have any magical effect. But there’s nothing wrong with taking those arbitrary marks on a calendar and infusing them with meaning that helps us face what the next 365 sunrises will bring. There may be memories, habits, attitudes that you feel are detrimental to you and those that you love. The new year is a perfect opportunity to leave those behind. To reorient yourself to a goal. To take stock, make plans and consider change.

So, wherever you are, whenever it is… draw your starting line. Find your finish line.




May the year to come be better than the year that was.

2020 DEATH
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