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The flow of time

As was to be anticipated, we crossed over the thin line dividing the 1970s from the 1980s; and everything continues much as it was before. Only children have the wonderful cpacity to break down time into blocks, or to make of it a series of countries each sharply defined and bounded. The six-year- old knows perfectly well that on tomorrow's birthday he will be seven -- and an entirely different person. He has entered a new land; he has crossed over one of those brightly colored lines that lie upon his map of the world. For the rest of us, however much we try to distinguish the epochs and decades -- in our own existence as well as in the larger existence of mankind -- time remains a continuous flow.

The years come and go; the decades pass -- and still, for better or worse, we remain our old selves, burdened with faults we fain would cast off, cherishing weak virtues more kindly judged by others than by ourselves. The resolutions at the year's end are brave indications of what we would like to be; yet at the heart's center we recognize that the morning will find us still upon the journey long-since decreed, walking the same crooked or wavering line. A little more of good humor, perhaps, a little more of charitableness or tolerance, will mark us for a day or two and may even shed a glow over coming months. But the old Adam (or the old Eve, for that matter) is fixed in the human being. We go forward upon the river of time, at best gliding hopefully toward a far-off end.

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If New Year resolutions are doomed to be short-lived, New Year predictions usually miss the mark. It is tempting to think that at the threshold of a decade the curtain will lift and let us glimpse, if only for a moment, what lies ahead. The recent past now stands relatively clear in view; hindsight makes of our immense ignorance something that may be mistaken for wisdom. In this mood we flaunt a gift of divination, telling many wondrous things of what is still ahead. I was in my youth quite proud of my capacity to foresee the future; but in the later years I am content if I can have some tentative understanding of the present.

To understand the present is not altogether a minor achievement, and indeed may be the best we can hope for in gaining a vision of what is to come. If time is a continuous flow, then the future will not be entirely new or different. More likely it will be an unfolding of tendencies already at work within the social order. If we can really know what today is like -- if we can penetrate to its depths, distinguishing what is superficial and transient from what will endure -- we are in a favorable position for prophecy.

The prophets of old times were not men who were primarily concerned with the future; they were men very much concerned and agitated by what was going on around them. Of course they often predicted ruin; they told men and women if they did not mend their ways they would suffer an awful fate. But that fate interested them much less than reform in the manners and morals of their own day.

The true prophet saw, or thought he saw, into the depths of actual events. He called men to account for what they were. Not liking to face up to this, the people concentrated on his threats of doom. They distorted the word "prophet" so that it came to mean a man who was often wrong about the future, instead of one who was almost invariably right about the present.

We, too, may be wrong about the future. Certainly the gloomiest forecasts are not necessarily the most correct. But for all practical purposes we shall be wise enough if we can look steadily at what we are -- at what is happening within us and around us at this very moment. To see deep, I suggest, is more important than to see far. Grand resolves the noble visions have their place, but it is reassuring to think that in making things close to us a little better, we make the distant prospect a little brighter.


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