Always Time For New Beginnings

With the New Year upon us, I’m reminded of William Shakespeare’s line that “what’s past is prologue.” Yet I wonder, on a continuum from past to future, how do we recognize and make sense of the fact that the moment we call “now” is more of an overlap than a clean break? As 2021 winds down, what I’m thinking about is that within this overlap — the present — our usual reference point for understanding time can both constrain and expand our imaginations.

That reference point is life. The measuring stick is what we can remember. That’s about 80 years because, as the National Center for Health Statistics reports, life expectancy right now in the United States is a little more than 77 years. Call it an even 80, rounded up.

In 2021, one such measuring stick that caught my attention was December 7th, the 80th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My parents are in their 80s, and Pearl Harbor happened within their lifetimes. I can ask them about it, or I can talk to a veteran who was there that day. It’s a past I can relate to.

But 80 years before that, in extending this thread of military events in U.S. history, would be the start of the Civil War. And 80 years before that would be the American War of Independence.

By going back a single interval of 80 years before the one we’re living in now, memory fails. Instead of knowing a thing firsthand, we start relying on historical narratives to piece together an understanding of what brought us to the present.

We just need to get out of ourselves. We need to stretch our horizons beyond 80 years. If our lifespans were 4000 years instead of 80, we would remember that as the Great Pyramids of Giza were being finished, there were still woolly mammoths living on Earth. Or reflect on the fact that when the Obelisk of Theodosius (which stands today in Istanbul, shown in the photo above) was built more than 3,000 years ago, much of what we think of as the ancient civilization of Rome hadn’t even started.

Crazy, isn’t it? But that’s the overlap, and with a broader sense of time, the past as we relate to it serves as both a prologue and a dreamscape.

In this holiday season as a New Year begins, I’m thinking it’s time — pun absolutely intended — to do some dreaming. Big dreaming, with more dialogue and more listening. The rekindling of energy we feel on January 1st can serve us well for not just the year ahead but far beyond.

This is also a time of contemplation, of course. A song from the musical Rent runs the math and puts it to us directly, “525,600 minutes, how do you measure a year?” As the bells chime at midnight on New Year’s Eve and we reflect on the 525,600 minutes of the previous year, do we measure in could-haves? Or might-have-beens? No, they’re gone. There’s just the now, an overlap in progress. Though each moment is finite, the opportunity is endless.