The Big Question
Is Time Liberating or Oppressive? by Naomi Chasek-MacFoy

Photograph by Eleanor Bennett

Time is a naturally occurring phenomenon, integral to our existence from moment to moment.

That being said, in many ways, it is a human construct, meant to limit, and order our world. Individual conceptions of time are indicative of a specific worldviews. In our society, time is a straight line, with a past, a present, and a future. There is no going back. The future cannot be expedited in its arrival. Considering this paradigm, time is alternately liberating and oppressive.

Pressure to complete an action within a given amount of time can be immense, even terrible. When that period has elapsed, however, the relief is often equally powerful. Time liberates the present from the past and people from obligation, but also creates insurmountable barriers between desire and achievement, sorrow and happiness. In fact, even the notion of time ticking on and on into eternity can be overwhelming and oppressive. It can also be as beautiful and fulfilling as watching a stream wend its way through a dense forest. Overall, the particulars of the situations in which we find ourselves as well as the way we regard time define its effects.

The following are several illustrations of the alternately liberating and oppressive nature of time:

Photography by Merrell HattonImagine a grey, dreary day. The sky is cloaked in a thick swath of dark, wooly clouds. Rain, and hail fall forcefully, to the ground, which lies prostrated below. Fresh, young leaves of plants are bent under the wrath of the rain. They contort themselves painfully, falling lower, ever lower, to the ground. Angry red welts appear on the forearms and necks of foolish passersby who remain insufficiently dressed, despite the weather. Retreat to the welcome dry of an awning is the only escape possible.

Here is an example of the liberating aspects of time. Only time will make the rain stop. In fact, the constant passage of time brings about both the genesis and termination of the rain. In and of itself, time does not cause the rain to fall. Atmospheric pressure, and various other forces are the true agents. The passage of time is, however, a catalyzing force, allowing for the rain to begin to fall, and ultimately to for it to end, bringing about considerable relief. Thus, as a force outside of human control, time can offer respite from forces that are also out of our control, such as the weather.

Imagine a field, lush, green, slightly damp in places where the sun’s rays are blocked by the opacity of a pine tree’sPhotographs by Merrell Hatton branches. Little white clover blossoms dot the lawn, a testament to the wonderfully random aspects of nature. Five friends appear, carrying supplies for a picnic. Laughing, eating, singing, they while away the day together. But the day must end. As the sun dips below the horizon, in one last explosion of golden light, they pack their things.

Here, as in the former example, time is the force catalyzing the end of a given event. In this case, however, time is an oppressive force, dictating the end of a moment of happiness, while its essential mechanisms persist. Time is demarcated naturally, by the rising and setting of the sun, just like the passage of seasons, which go on perpetually. These demarcations are not time itself, but a manifestation of its passage in our environment. In this circumstance, we see that the two are inextricably linked.

That is to say, time cannot exist without nature, and nature cannot exist without time.

Imagine a bus station. It’s 8:49 in the morning. A small, motley crew of workers awaits the bus dispassionately. Their ennui, after years of labor, is palpable. A young businessman, in a crisp suit rises from a nearby subway station, taking the stairs two at a time. The bus rolls almost noiselessly towards the stop. The businessman walks briskly toward the bus station, conscious of its imminent arrival. His phone rings, and he pauses, momentarily to answer its repeated chiming. The bus stops, the passengers embark, orderly, their daily travels having made them cogs in a well oiled machine. The businessman breaks into a run, trotting briskly along the cement. The bus rolls on, past the station. The businessman halts, abruptly, and seeing that the bus is gone, he stamps his foot, hard. Slight pain reverberates throughout his heel. He will be late.

This example illustrates the oppressiveness of time in a fundamentally different way. Time is not only demarcated naturally, but also artificially, through human inventions such as clocks, and schedules. These methods of delineating time, because of their links to society, are oppressive in a different way. While natural forms of time demarcation oppress in a personal way, limiting or increasing individual happiness, societal forms of time measurement have more interpersonal ramifications. This is exemplified above, as the young man’s business relationships are affected by the bus schedule. That is not to say that artificial ways of defining time are necessarily oppressive: they create order in our society, and can be liberating in that capacity. Overall, human delineations of time oppress, or liberate our interpersonal relations.

Ultimately, time is neither singularly liberating or oppressive. It has both qualities, possessing them alternately. As a force, time is so fundamentally natural, that to speak of the oppression of time, is to speak of the oppression of any natural force; all natural forces are at once utterly liberating and completely confining. As a natural force, time has personal effects, with fewer social ramifications. However, humans humans interact with this natural force most often through the filter of such societal constructs as schedules. This form of time measurement is also alternately liberating and oppressive, however it has broader consequences in terms of interpersonal relations.

Although, time is both liberating and oppressive on these two levels, the constant passage of time, seen either cyclically or linearly is undeniable and immutable. This rigidity allows for individuals to work within the constraints of time to achieve their own ends. There is no danger of time actively working to increase its control. There is a sense of freedom in this notion, despite the obvious constraints inherent in our interaction with time. Ultimately, time is both liberating and oppressive, but its nature also allows individuals to reclaim control.

Naomi Chasek-MacFoy

Naomi Chasek-MacFoy is a 9th grader currently attending Bard High School Early College. She enjoys reading, playing soccer and sewing. Naomi lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Top photograph by Eleanor Bennett.
Small photographs by Merrell Hatton.
  1. Loved this! Your vocabulary was excellent and the illustrations were detailed and relatable. This article really made me think about the time aspect of life and the hold it truly has on everyone at every moment. Great job!