This I Believe: Thomas Mann on Time and the Meaning of Our Existence
“The perishableness of life … imparts value, dignity, interest to life.”
By Maria Popova
“The best thing about time passing,” Sarah Manguso wrote in her magnificent meditation on ongoingness, “is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know.” More than half a century earlier, the great German writer, philanthropist, and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann (June 6, 1875–August 12, 1955) articulated this idea with enchanting elegance in NPR’s program-turned-book This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (public library) — a compendium of wisdom from eighty contributors ranging from a part-time hospital worker to a woman who sells Yellow Pages advertising to luminaries like Eleanor Roosevelt, John Updike, Errol Morris, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, and Andrew Sullivan.
NPR’s invitation was simple yet enormously challenging: Each contributor was asked to capture his or her personal credo — that essential set of guiding principles by which life is lived — in just a few hundred words. In an era long before people were being asked to capture their convictions in 140 characters, this was a radical proposition — particularly for writers used to exploring such matters in several hundred pages.
Answering in the 1950s — decades after his touching correspondence with young Hermann Hesse and a few years before his death — Mann writes:
What I believe, what I value most, is transitoriness.
But is not transitoriness — the perishableness of life — something very sad? No! It is the very soul of existence. It imparts value, dignity, interest to life. Transitoriness creates time — and “time is the essence.” Potentially at least, time is the supreme, most useful gift.
Time is related to — yes, identical with — everything creative and active, with every progress toward a higher goal. Without transitoriness, without beginning or end, birth or death, there is no time, either. Timelessness — in the sense of time never ending, never beginning — is a stagnant nothing. It is absolutely uninteresting.
What is interesting, of course, is that Mann’s work — his words, his wisdom — is very much timeless, as is even his antagonism toward timelessness itself. And yet even as he scoffs at timelessness, he remains keenly attuned to this duality — the eternal dance between transitoriness and the tenacity of existence:
Life is possessed by tremendous tenacity. Even so, its presence remains conditional, and as it had a beginning, so it will have an end. I believe that life, just for this reason, is exceedingly enhanced in value, in charm.
The privilege of this experience, Mann argues, is a centerpiece of the answer to the age-old question of what it means to be human:
One of the most important characteristics distinguishing man from all other forms of nature is his knowledge of transitoriness, of beginning and end, and therefore of the gift of time.
In man, transitory life attains its peak of animation, of soul power, so to speak. This does not mean man alone would have a soul. Soul quality pervades all beings. But man’s soul is most awake in his knowledge of the inter-changeability of the terms “existence” and “transitoriness.”
To man, time is given like a piece of land, as it were, entrusted to him for faithful tilling; a space in which to strive incessantly, achieve self-realization, move onward and upward. Yes, with the aid of time, man becomes capable of wresting the immortal from the mortal.
This I Believe is a timelessly glorious read in its entirety. Complement Mann’s contribution with Alan Lightman on reconciling our longing for immortality with an impermanent universe and Claudia Hammond on the psychology of why time slows down when you’re afraid, speeds up as you age, and gets warped while you’re on vacation.
Published April 24, 2015