We are memory, basically.

Ever since astronomers used the position of the moon, sun, and stars to develop modern timekeeping 400 years ago, we’ve been obsessed with being able to give a name to the moment. Time is a reliable and steadfast tool that allows us to organize our daily life, to convene, and to measure how fast things move. It’s a universal truth that we can all agree on. However, appearances can be deceptive. 

In reality, time passes at different speeds in different places. It may seem hard to believe, but countless experiments with precision timepieces have demonstrated that time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level. And slower for people in motion compared to those that stand still.  

We also perceive the passing of time as moving in one direction. Our lives are described as narrative arcs that follow a clear path moving towards an unwritten future that is powered by a past that has already occurred. We’re taught to pay enormous attention to the things that have happened and the things that could one day take place. We plan for tomorrow, dwell on yesterday, get lost in nostalgia, and feel anxious or excited about the future. But again, a physicist would not see things this way.

They would argue that time is in fact a social construct, and not represented in a linear way at all. In his bestselling book The Order of Time, the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli points out that, from a scientific perspective, there is actually little that distinguishes the past from the future. The only difference is that one is more ordered and certain than the other. And this perception would not even exist unless we had memory.

Without memory, there would be no past or future. We would just be. And we would experience life like most other species on the planet. Some philosophers would argue that we pay a price for the thought processes that our memory serves us because it prevents us from realizing that the only true reality lies in the present. 

It’s true. Sometimes, we struggle to feel content unless we’re assured that certain good things lie ahead. And sometimes, we forget to enjoy the party because we’re missing someone who is no longer with us. 

We might be advised to avoid thinking too much about the past or being too concerned about the direction in which we’re heading. After all, what is the use of always setting yourself up for the future if when you get there you’re not even there because you’re too busy thinking of another, new version of the future?

We’ve heard it all a thousand times before: Live in the moment. We must appreciate the here and now because that is all that truly exists. The past and the future are abstract and imaginary constructs that only exist in memory and vision.

But while this perspective can help inspire us to embrace the joy of now, we must remember that those intrusive thoughts of remorse or apprehension also represent something very special. We worry, and we miss. But we also get excited, and we share old stories that make people smile. Above all, our unique way of perceiving the past and the future is the single most important trait that makes us distinct from other animals. 

This human perception of time may be nonsense in the rules of physics, and it may sometimes cause us great pain. But it also gives us an appreciation for the things that have passed through our lives and made us who we are today. It gives meaning to our existence. It is, in essence, what makes life beautiful. It is, ultimately, what makes us human.

Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time (Italian: L’ordine del tempo), 2017

Natalie Rhodes is a writer based in Fontainebleau, France.