The Time of the Event

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

The direction of events in English

The English are typically proud of “letting go” of past insults and injuries. “Let bygones be bygones,” we say. “It’s water under the bridge.”

In this water-and-bridge metaphor, time is imagined as a river where events flow by beneath us as we stand on the bridge of the eternal present. As my present consciousness stands over this river of time and gazes upstream to face the future, I see upcoming events caught in the current, floating towards me.

As they pass under the bridge, I can turn around and see them floating downstream, farther and farther away into the past.

Typical advice in English for anxiety about the future is to “take it as it comes.” And for anxiety about the past, to “let it go.”

If that’s our image of time, then what is the direction of the event itself in time? It seems that the future “comes” towards us and the past “goes” away from us.

Direction of events in English idiom:
past ← present ← future
← going ← coming ←

Of course, time as we live it still comes from the past and goes into the future. So everyone’s own lived “coming” and “going” is forward in time. But this is not the case for the events we encounter on the road of life. As we travel forward, they come from the future to meet us and go by us into the past.

Indeed, switching back to the river-of-time metaphor, if we can’t let go of the past, if we don’t stand aloof, like the sturdy, good-natured Englishman on the bridge forgiving past transgressions, we may instead find ourselves like The Great Gatsby, overcome by the force of events and left afloat on the river of time itself, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The direction of events in Nishnaabemwin

Nishnaabemwin (the Odawa or Ojibwe language) uses directional prefixes bi- and ni-, to indicate movement in space, things coming and going. Indeed they’re used much more frequently than in English, so the translation of a Nishnaabe sentence into English could sometimes omit this extra directional information where it might be redundant or unnatural for English to add “come and” or “go and” to the verb.

Aanii! Mii na go ni-maajaayin? Gesnaa jina gii-bi-nbwaachwe.
Oh! Are you leaving now? You visited for such a short time (i.e., go and leave, come and visit)

Like English, these directions of coming and going are also used to indicate past and future. But unlike English, the prefix bi- (which indicates “coming” or movement in a direction towards the speaker) refers to the past, and ni- (which indicates “going” or movement in a direction away from the speaker) refers to the future.

For example, “gaa-bi-bmisek” refers to last week. And “ge-ni-bmisek” refers to next week. So the expression containing the “bi” prefix (which indicates coming) is opposite to what English would call “the coming week.”

gii-bi-gaachiinyaanh genii
(in the past) when I was small

Mii aw maanda ge-ni-nendaagok
This is the way it will seem (in the future)

As we live our lives, coming from the past and going into the future, what the language seems to suggest is that the time of the event moves in that same direction.

Direction of events in Nishnaabe idiom:
past → present → future
→ coming (bi-) → going (ni-) →

Under this conception, as we travel the road of life, we would not meet events coming back towards us from the future; instead, we would meet them as fellow travellers in the same direction.

Or if time is a river, it isn’t flowing against us; the past isn’t something we need to let go of in order to stay in the present. Instead, the past flows with us into the present and carries us into the future.

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