Tag Archives: measurement

The Sacred Second

We measure things.  It is one of the things humans do. Mostly because we plan to use them.  

Measurements are of two kinds: natural/intuitive and artificial/synthetic.  Natural ones came first.  Feet based on an average foot (mine, I say without bragging, are exactly one foot long – including the shoe. This makes for a useful way to walk off distances.)  Cubits based on an average forearm of about a foot and a half.  An inch is about the length of a thumb knuckle.

The metric system, on the other hand, is artificial/synthetic, based on…something. (I don’t know what.)  Built on our numbering system, it is more easily used in science and math.

The only area where a natural/intuitive system still prevails in its traditional un-metricized form is our measurement of time.  Natural constants still govern here. A year is one revolution in earth’s orbit around the sun: one cycle of seasons.  A day is one rotation on the earth’s axis: one cycle of light and darkness.  In between a year and a day we have more artificial measures: months and weeks.  And below the day, we have sub-divisions of hour, minute, and second.

Our awareness of the passage of time is a difficulty for us. In late afternoon we ask “where has the day gone?”  Our clocks tell us, but we are still surprised. 

Years are even more so.  On our birthdays and New Year’s Day, we celebrate or mourn the elusive passing of another year; we ponder, for a day, the mysterious year ahead, before moving on into uncharted daily existence.

Even at the much smaller scale, it is hard to track time without mechanical assistance.  Try to concentrate on a single subject or thought for a full minute, without looking at a clock. For me, distractions invariably arise, especially the distraction of wondering how much of the minute has elapsed.  To some extent, this is the problem of reverse concentration: try not to think of an elephant. 

But the crux of the problem is the difficulty of measuring time with our mind alone.  The only way I can make myself aware of the passage of a minute is to count to 60. In other words, to count seconds.

Why are seconds so much easier for us to embrace than any larger measure of time?  Check your pulse. If you are healthy and resting, your heartbeat should be right around 60 beats per minute: a natural standard.

Tiny, fragile, elusive, the second is nonetheless the most tangible form in which we can consciously confront time. It cannot be an accident that it is also the measure of our life blood nourishing our very existence.  The last second-long heartbeat is the end of our earthly life. And long before our birth, the second-long beats of our hearts mark what we are and will become.

The passage of time is thus the passage of life.  Prisoners are said to count the days of their sentences by chalk marks on the cell wall.  If they didn’t do so, they might lose track of the passage of time and their sentences would become infinite.  

Every second is a gift from God.  This can be said of day, week, month and year, of course.  But they slip past us.   Such gifts deserve thanks.  It is appropriate to try to insert a prayer of thanksgiving into every second.  But is it possible?

I am trying.  I find that simply thinking “Thank you, Lord” can be done in about a second.  I can’t do it every second, of course.  But I can do it often.

And I can try to live my life in such a way that I feel grateful for every second.  Some days this is easier than others.  But I can try.

I can try.

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