Analog Moments, or Why Neither Sittler nor Jesus nor John nor I Like Digital Watches
The late Joseph Sittler, Lutheran theologian and wordsmith, savored life.
His ode to his beloved forbidden Polish sausages (“Polish Sausage, St. Augustine, and the Moral Life”), his appreciation of the constancy of love and lovers (“Marriage and Snow on the Mountain”), and his thorough and consistent defense of and gladness in nature reveal that the guy simply loved creation and having been created.
He believed that every moment is to be cherished, as are those within them, for they are all signs of grace, and some more fragile signs than others.
Missing that truth, dissing that truth, really irked him.
This affection of his for that which happens in time explains, then, his awfully huffy rant against digital watches:
“The first time I ever saw a digital watch, I was angry. I was disproportionally angry–I mean, the presence of that new gadget called a digital watch shouldn’t have made me that mad–so I reflected upon why the disproportion between the smallness of the watch and the bigness of my anger, and in the course of those reflections I think I got a hold of something important. The digital watch is a bad instrument because it’s a liar–it doesn’t tell the truth about time. The digital watch jumps. It’s a jerky little thing, and when a minute is up, it jerks and the time is recorded on the little opening in the watch face. It makes time jerky, episodic–now you have it, now you don’t. But time is not like that. On the old watch, you remember, the great minute hand slowly, slowly sweeps around the minute, and the hour hand creeps through the hours of the day and the night, and the slow and uninterrupted option of the hands on the watch is a kind of honest representation of the way time is; time doesn’t jump, it creeps. Time is not episodic; time is a kind of flowing…there’s something about the digitalization of life which is destructive of the true nature of life. It leads us to forget that time is a continuum. Time is a stream. It’s not a series of unrelated episodes…
[T]his sense of time in its flowing, in the slowness, in the almost unrecognizable fragility of its multiple changes–this is an important fact that human life ought to recognize; and if we turn our life into a kind of jumpy, jerky series of separated episodes, we tend to forget and even to make banal the profound pathos of time in our life…You see, if time is digitalization and chopped up into pieces then the most profound events and ponderings of life tend to be lost in the frenzied excitement of each passing moment.”
“The digital watch is a bad instrument because it’s a liar–it doesn’t tell the truth about time.”
Gosh, that’s vividly true and wonderful.
I don’t like digital time-telling devices, nor, by the way, do I like lies.
But I have never thought to put those two concepts together before I, for whatever reason, recalled and re-read this passage from Sittler the other day.
But they belong together as much as do lock and key, wine and cheese, and Saturday mornings with press pot coffee.
Lies are about swapping out the truth of what has come before and what could come after with the passing panic, pleasure, safety, or yearning of the moment.
And digital timepieces have no time to remind us of the past and of the future to come. They are all and only about the immediate moment–regardless of whether they are panicked, pleasurable, safe, or yearning.
Both lies and digital clocks are about the Now.
The Now has been getting a lot of press these days. It’s sort of an In concept. Live in the Now and all of that.
I’m not opposed to living in the Now. One can argue that that’s all we’ve got.
But there’s a difference between making a decision in the Now and out of the Now.
The Now, separated from the past (perhaps even past shared with one or more other people) and untethered to the future (ours and any other futures that may well be affected by our take on the Now) is a Now that is fairly turned-in-on-itself.
It’s a moment unto itself, and makes the moment all about ourselves.
Except none of us are unto ourselves, when you get right down to it.
My father did his entire 321 page Princeton Ph.D. (typed entirely by my mother, it must be said) on St. John’s understanding of the word νῦν, which happens to be the Greek word for ‘now.’
More than a year of work for every letter in the word.
Turns out that ‘now’ as understood by John does refer to the present moment, but that the Now moment is inextricably related to God’s work and action and history before said present moment, and it is inextricably related to the new work and action and evolving history found in Jesus and his promises about the future after this present moment too.
Upshot is, I believe that neither John nor Jesus would like digital watches either.
The irony, of course, is that for all the exhilaration surrounding the isolated Moment of Now, such moments become really rather forlorn.
They are orphaned, in a way. Orphaned moments that have neither history nor future.
Perhaps there does develop a history of what Sittler calls “jerky” moments, perhaps what he’s hinting at when he says “if we turn our life into a kind of jumpy, jerky series of separated episodes, we tend to forget and even to make banal the profound pathos of time in our life.”
The future, however, becomes a past of untethered, transitory, jumpy, jerky moments, and in key places is devoid of references to or concern about occasions of, as Sittler calls them, “profound pathos” in one’s own life, or as profound pathos might be experienced in someone else’s life because of another’s isolated view of the Now.
We might not notice it, because the exhilaration of the moment is unbound to anything and anyone but our own present want and need.
In the moment, the isolated Now can be pretty great.
But we are meant to be related, and unrelated moments–or perhaps moments that are related only insofar as they are all consistently about the present moment–make that hard to do and to be.
And then not only are the moments orphaned, but ultimately we ourselves become so too.
As for me, count me in with Sittler. I will happily wear my analog watch while I happily savor moments born out of and into (and hopefully in keeping with) God’s history of grace and hope and candor and reconciliation and renewal.
But I am not going to have Polish sausage with Press Pot coffee in the same moment, though I might enjoy one while reminiscing or planning for the other.
Perhaps John’s “now” is how Jesus does not leave us orphaned.