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What Time Is It? Your Answer is Telling

Our answer to this question reflects our capacity for theory of mind.

Key points

  • A simple question, "What time is it?" can spur psychological growth through theory of mind.
  • The more we understand that time varies according to location, speed & gravity, the less prone we are to narcissism & tribalism.

There are many answers to the question 'What time is it?' but most of them miss the mark. Perhaps the only correct answer is a question unto itself: "Where?"

 John G. Cottone / MindCube3D
The Colosseum in Rome at sunrise, minutes after I finished writing this article.
Source: John G. Cottone / MindCube3D

It is 4 a.m. in Rome, where I'm currently writing this article. Back home in New York, it is 10 p.m. (the previous day). And at the International Date Line, it is 3 p.m.

Traveling to Europe, and especially to Italy, makes one think about time in different ways. To visit Rome is to be reminded that the ancient Romans believed this city was the center of the world, as per the phrase "all roads lead to Rome." Of course, this was an age before telecommunications, when people couldn't talk to someone else at a different meridian across the globe to discover that the sun was at a different angle on the horizon there, thus signaling a different time of day, at that very moment.

This lack of perspective was partly responsible for the egocentric way of thinking that would dominate Western civilization until the 20th century. The 20th century saw a revolution in telecommunications, bringing us devices like the telephone and satellite television, enabling us instantaneous communication across time zones. The 20th century also gave us Einstein's theories of general and special relativity, both of which demonstrated that time itself is not a constant but rather it is context-dependent and dynamic.

These advances have been necessary to establish, what neuroscientists call, theory of mind among a critical mass of people: enough to usher us into a new postmodern era, where it is understood that nothing - not the Earth, nor the Sun, nor any single person, group or institution - is at the center of the universe.

This new understanding of existence, which isn't actually new but has finally come to be realized by a significant number of people, is threatening because it shatters our narcissistic bubble. The Italian astronomer Galileo discovered this when he empirically validated Copernicus' heliocentric theory and was nearly executed by the Church for it.

 John G. Cottone / MindCube3D
Sunlight coming through the oculus of the Pantheon tells the time and day.
Source: John G. Cottone / MindCube3D

Narcissism first develops in its ego-centric form and then gradually evolves into a group-centric or tribalistic form. This tribalistic form of narcissism is what makes people fall victim to fear of the "other," which has led to the violence that our species has inflicted upon itself since time immemorial.

The good news is that there is a simple remedy for both the egocentric and tribalistic forms of narcissism that still plague our species in this, the year 2022 CE (or is it the year 5782 of the Hebrew calendar... or the year 4720 of the Chinese calendar?).

This remedy does not take the form of a pill or even a type of therapy, but rather, it takes the form of a question, a Zen kōan, to be meditated upon:

What time is it?


I offer thanks to Mr. Ken Schwinn and Mrs. Flora Hartford, whose high school humanities class inspired the perspectives discussed in this article.

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