Time will tell?

When asked about what he thought about the French Revolution 160 years on, the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai famously replied, “It is too soon to say.” It’s an extreme example of a common idea: that the truth about things often emerges only slowly.

Since the proverb counsels against rushing, it would seem apt not to rush to jump to conclusions about what precisely it means. Because there are at least two ways of getting it wrong.

One is suggested by an Italian variant, Se son rose, fioriranno: if they’re roses, they’ll bloom. But even hardy plants like roses won’t bloom if they are neglected. Often, more than time is needed if something is to show its full potential. If you could be a great musician, for example, time is mute about what you could have achieved if you decide not to bother practising. The proverb needs to be purged of its fatalistic overtones if it is to ring true.

Roses of another kind point to the second way the saying can be got wrong. We often think that we will be able to judge whether something in our recent past is good or bad once enough time has elapsed to give us some distance from it. Again, this might be true, but only if we are careful to remove rose-tinted spectacles. Time tells, but it also heals, and it often does this by helping us to forget. Everyday experience and psychological research agree that we are often very bad at recalling the past impartially, and that we tend to construct narratives that suit ourselves. History may be written by the winners, but even losers find ways to make their defeat less ignominious.

When we look back and ask whether we did the right thing, finding an answer, even a critical one, enables us to come to terms with what has happened. But sometimes this clarity is imposed by hindsight rather than revealed by time, and we have to recognize that it sometimes distorts rather than captures what really happened.

(Adapted from Julian Baggini’s ‘Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover?’)

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~ by irwin on February 19, 2012.

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