Leap Year: Make Meaning Out of Time

Fresno Bee, March 1, 2020

Leap year reminds us of the importance of science and math. It is also an opportunity to ponder the meaning of time.

Our calendars don’t line up with the way the solar system works. We divide the year into 365 days. But our journey around the sun takes approximately 365.25 days.

So we add a day every four years. And since the discrepancy is not precise, we make further adjustments. 2000 was a leap year. But 2100, if we live that long, will not be.

Time measurement was originally a political and religious prerogative. The calendar reflects ancient religious ideas. The days of the week are named after pagan gods. Sunday belongs to the Sun. Saturday is for Saturn. Wednesday is Wotan’s day. Thursday is Thor’s day.

Political meaning is also woven in. July is named for Julius Caesar. August is named for Augustus. The holiday calendar is both religious and political. It includes President’s Day as well as Easter. These are days for civic duty and worship.

But religious and political authority give way to science when it comes to leap year. We trust that the astronomers did the math right. Maybe we should trust science on other issues—such as climate change and public health.

But science can only observe and calculate the passage of time. It cannot determine its meaning. What is the point, after all, of measuring time?

We measure to make meaning. Quantity matters. We ask how much, how many, and how long? The sciences are useful here. Economics quantifies time and money. Medical science advises about how much to eat and how long to exercise.

But science cannot answer the questions of why and what for. These are questions of quality. The doctors can help us live longer. But what is the point of a long life? The economists can help us make money. But what should we buy?

Eventually, the question of quality overshadows the question of quantity. We know that our days are numbered. But what shall we do with those days to make them worth living?

Science cannot say. To find an answer we turn to politics and religion, as well as poetry and philosophy. The question of quality takes us far beyond science.

Perhaps we should fill our time with love and beauty. Some argue that love transcends time. Shakespeare said that love is “not time’s fool.” It remains like a fixed star across the tempest of time.

Shakespeare saw time as a “bloody tyrant.” “Time’s pencil” scribbles on our faces. “Devouring time” makes war on beauty. Summer fades, roses die, and youth succumbs to “swift-footed time.”

For Shakespeare, love and art provide a glimpse of immortality, lifting us out of the flow of time. Art preserves youthful beauty in the eternal present, forever young and glowing. What should we do with our time? Shakespeare suggests we make love and make art.

A different suggestion is found in Plato and in Aristotle. They say that wisdom lifts us beyond the ravages of time. When we contemplate truth, we touch the eternal. What should we do with our time, according to the philosophers? They suggest we pursue wisdom.

Other poets and philosophers tell us that since our days are numbered, we should seize the day. Thoreau said that killing time does injury to eternity. We should make no compromise with time but live fully in each precious moment. To be here, now, immersed in nature’s wonder is another way to savor our constantly dwindling supply of days.

We seem to have wandered far from leap year. But we have actually circled back. When we discover that the calendar is a man-made, a kind of liberation dawns. If the year can be made to leap, then so can we.

Leap year reminds us that time is something we measure for our own purposes. Science shows that the sun and the seasons are fixed by natural laws. But the poets and philosophers teach that time is ours to enjoy. It is not merely a tyrant, as Shakespeare warned. It is also a gift that affords us the opportunity to make love, to make art, and to make meaning.

Assisted Suicide, Living, and Dying Well

Assisted suicide and the ethics of living and dying well

Fresno Bee, June 25, 2016

  • Assisted suicide law prompts legal challenge
  • Suicide points toward important religious and philosophical disagreement
  • The meaning of life includes thinking about dying well

Eternal Life

Eternal life and the meaning of life

Fresno Bee, March 26, 2016

  • Easter is a good time to contemplate the possibility of eternal life
  • A good life includes resilience in the face of adversity
  • Friendship, culture and perseverance are keys to happiness

Belief in heaven remains strong. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 70 percent of Americans believe in heaven as a place where “people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded.”

Easter is a good time to contemplate the possibility of eternal life. Even if you are not a Christian, thinking about eternal life helps clarify the meaning of life in this world.

Some imagine paradise as spring break without a hangover. But sensual pleasure is not sufficient for a human being. Pure hedonism distracts us from higher goods. An eternal life of sensual pleasure would quickly become boring.

14129765799_e904af13b7_bBeyond sensual delight are the goods of ethics and culture. It is unclear how ethics would work beyond this vale of tears. But social relations and loving friendships are an important part of happiness. Of course, even the deepest romantic love may wear thin in eternity. Whom would you really want to spend eternity with?

Maybe cultural activity is the key to eternal happiness. Music, art, sports, philosophy and science are all activities done for their own sake. In these activities we create and discover meaning. Visions of eternity usually have included the goods of culture. Socrates imagined the afterlife as a place of unending philosophical conversation. Christians imagine music in heaven, with harp-strumming angels and choirs singing hymns of praise.

Perhaps heaven is a place to do activities we love. For skiers, heaven may be an eternity of untracked powder. For dancers, it might be a place of perpetual graceful motion. A golfer may dream of birdies, eagles and holes-in-one.

A MEANINGFUL LIFE RESTS UPON THE NARRATIVE ARC OF THE TOTALITY OF OUR DEEDS.

The problem is that play – like sensual delight and friendship – becomes dull when imagined in the context of eternal life. The happiness generated by human activity is connected to our need for variety and challenge. No human action is perfect. And every joyful activity must come to an end.

Conversations and songs become tedious after a while. At some point skiing, singing and dancing become boring and exhausting. And if every drive landed in the cup, golf would cease to be interesting.

A meaningful life requires more than completion and consummation in the ecstasy of bliss. In addition to play, we need practice. We also need failure, loss and the challenge of overcoming obstacles.

The enjoyment of the choral singer includes the process of learning the song, the camaraderie of the rehearsal, and the delight of the performance. Skiing, golf and dance are lifetime projects. Golfers seek out challenging courses. Skiers look for black diamonds. Dancers create new styles.

The joy of philosophy and science is not found in dull repetition of facts and theories. Rather, our inquiries are driven by questions, puzzles and paradoxes. And friendship grows through shared suffering and the process of overcoming disagreement.

EVEN IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN HEAVEN, LIVING WELL IS ITS OWN REWARD.

A meaningful life involves surmounting challenges and mastering new skills. Perseverance and tenacity are important, as are thinking and problem solving. The bliss of the moment is less important than a life of labor. We build happy lives through discipline, disappointment and diligent work.

A meaningful life rests upon the narrative arc of the totality of our deeds: the good and the bad, the painful and the redemptive. Through the whole, we become who we are. Perhaps in the afterlife, we simply reflect upon our earthly lives – our triumphs and tragedies.

The reward for living a good life may be the memory of that good life. Even if there is no afterlife, we should hope to look back on life with pride, celebrating our successes, and satisfied with how we handled failure and defeat.

There is no meaningful progress without suffering and loss. But we can turn tragedy into triumph. Every skier falls. Every dancer stumbles. And everyone we love will end up dead. Happiness is about resilience and perseverance. It’s not about how many times you fall but about how quickly you get back up.

Life without loss, risk and failure would be boring. Which is why heavenly bliss is so puzzling. Perhaps there is an afterlife. But even if you don’t believe in heaven, living well is its own reward. Joy is fleeting. Character endures. And if death comes tomorrow, you’ll want a good story to tell at the Pearly Gates.