An endless source of comfort

Our ability to measure and apportion time affords an almost endless source of comfort.

“Synchronise watches at oh six hundred,” says the infantry captain, and each of his huddled lieutenants finds a respite from fear in the act of bringing two tiny pointers into jeweled alignment while tons of heavy artillery go fluttering overhead; the prosaic, civilian looking dial of the watch has restored, however briefly, an illusion of personal control. Good, it counsels, looking tidily up from the hairs and veins of each terribly vulnerable wrist; fine: so far, everything’s happening right on time…

“Oh, let me see now,” says the ancient man, tilting his withered head to wince and blink at the sun in bewildered reminiscence, “my first wife passed away the spring of -” and for a moment he is touched with terror. The spring of what? Past? Future? What is any spring but a mindless rearrangement of cells in the crust of the spinning earth as it floats in endless circuit of its sun? What is the sun itself but one of a billion insensible stars forever going nowhere into nothingness? Infinity! But soon the merciful valves and switches of his brain begin to do their tired work, and “The spring of Nineteen-Ought-Six,” he is able to say. “Or no, wait-” and his blood runs cold again as the galaxies revolve. “Wait! Nineteen-Ought — Four.”… He may have forgotten the shape of his first wife’s smile and the sound of her voice in tears, but by imposing a set of numerals on her death, he has imposed coherence on his own life and on life itself… “Yes sir,” he can say with authority, “nineteen-Ought-Four,” and the stars tonight will please him as tokens of his ultimate heavenly rest. He has brought order out of chaos.

Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road, pp. 215-216) on the reassurance that measuring time brings: having a plan, whether it’s likely to happen or not; having a set notion of the past, whether it’s accurate or not; leaving out much and focusing only what we think we need.