For an introduction to this series, look here
Time is a child at play, moving pieces in a game. The child rules
Adults, who have forgotten what it was like to be a child, tend to think of children’s games as chaotic, random activity. Depending on the frame through which we think of children’s play, Heraclitus’ saying has very different meanings. Heraclitus was committed to observing the reality in front of him, so let us assume that he was not talking about randomness or chaos. If he was directing our attention towards children as they really are, this saying is much more interesting, and possibly encouraging.
Anyone who can remember, or who pays attention to children, will realise that arguing over the rules is an essential part of children’s play. ‘That’s not fair’ is a cry from the heart: working out what’s ‘fair’ (and the sad fact that fairness doesn’t always prevail) is an essential part of what’s going on in children’s play. During the period of lockdown, for many of us time dragged, slowly (while for others it zoomed – pun intended). Those who were already experiencing poverty and insecurity have mostly suffered more. Some with good incomes have found themselves saving large amounts as socialising is curtailed. It’s not fair.
The word I have translated as ‘time’ in this fragment can signify anything from ‘the human lifespan’ to ‘eternity’. The experience of time in each case has been uncomfortable for lots of us, and it may have felt to us as it did to Hamlet after seeing his father’s ghost, that ‘the time is out of joint’ – time itself is as contorted and painful as a dislocated shoulder. Time itself has felt unfair, playing its game for the rich against the poor.
But let’s think again about that word, ‘time’. It’s not just the present moment. This time we’re living through exists in the context of cosmic time, the unfolding of the hidden future into the present moment, which then is immediately incorporated into the past. Yes, there is disorder, the times do come out of joint and the game is not always fair. Individual tragedies cannot be reversed; those whose lifespan has ended prematurely and tragically will not return to us. But there is also, at a cosmic level, an instinct, a desire, a movement which challenges chaos and re-builds order.