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For as long as humans have had a conception of time, there have been people who wanted time to stop.
Sometimes it’s a happy wish: the desire to freeze a moment forever, no matter what happens in the future. It’s the question of “Why can’t I stay here forever?” and the thought of “I wish each day could be like this.” It’s the fundamental idea behind why many of us have thousands of photos saved on our phones, why we smile at a camera even when we aren’t happy. We want certain memories to endure, unmoving, even as the world and our lives change.
Other times our wish to stop time is born out of fear of its passage. The quest for immortality is a theme that has inspired stories from “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the world’s oldest surviving literature, to “Harry Potter.” Poets, alchemists, philosophers, theologians, and scientists alike have debated what it means to be immortal and how someone might achieve it — how someone might live eternally, stay constant despite the years flowing by — or, in other words, how they might freeze time for themselves. Societies construct monuments to ensure that the legacy of the departed remains present to the living, people of all ages long for their earlier years, and today we even have in cosmetics an entire industry centered largely on making the passage of time less visible.
Our desire for time to stop and our reluctance at its passing is so deeply embedded into our human nature that it drives many of our most basic interactions.
“It’s been a while,” we say. “I missed you.”
We’re obsessed with it.
Wishes can take many shapes, and wanting time to stop isn’t inherently wrong. It’s not always unjustified to want a moment to last forever. But in cases like mine, I think it’s a problem.
This summer, I realized I’m on fire, burning from the past. I experienced my first emotionally intimate friendship, which led me to confront parts of myself I’d never known existed. I was diagnosed with major depression, compounding my experiences of living disabled, which I’ve previously written a column about. And I realized that I’m neither cisgender nor heterosexual, forcing me to recontextualize my life experiences and rethink who I am. Not to mention that I’m at a point of transition in my life: I’m on a leave of absence before my senior year, and I don’t feel ready.
I want time to stop. I want time to stop so I can avoid the future. I don’t want to move forward and face my problems. I want everything to remain as it is.
The present, this instantaneous moment, is all that really exists, all we have besides our memory and our imagination; tomorrow is endlessly a day away, and as we pursue it, second after second disappears into the past. Dwelling in that past may make us depressed, and anticipating the future triggers anxiety. So we tend to live in the present, but even here, we need to resist the urge to stagnate, to deny change, to create an endless now.
I don’t think I’ve succeeded in avoiding that trap. It feels like I’m stuck in a photo I never wanted to take, one I’m not smiling in, long after the camera is gone.
I can’t smile. I physically can’t smile or frown, because my facial muscles are too weak to move. So to be honest, I hate looking at myself. How do I convey that I’m human, that my face is just a natural mask? I don’t know. It makes me feel powerless, like I don’t fit anywhere, and — okay, yeah, I get existential easily — I sometimes wonder what purpose I can live for if I can’t even show who I am.
But people tell me I can smile, whenever I complain about it. They say the miniscule smirk I unconsciously put on is my smile. And I get annoyed, because it feels patronizing; it’s nothing like the glowing faces everyone else displays in photos. But maybe they’re right, that this is my smile.
Smiles are how we in the moment present ourselves towards the future. They’re how we move on.
We live in a world that often doesn’t give us choices, or only lets certain people choose. I didn’t choose to be disabled, to be mentally ill, to be queer, to want time to stop. But that’s how I am, and I’d like to be proud of that. So at this moment, I want to understand how to move on from uncertainty, regret, and pain, within the limits of this world; how we define and accept ourselves through the smiles we choose. Only by examining ourselves and our fears can we restart the flow of time for ourselves and transfer the losses we experience into a purpose for living and an acceptance of change.
This column will be my own smile, exploring my personal challenges, including with my disabilities, mental health, and queerness, but also with the universal struggles of being human, as I work towards an answer. It’s not a smile you’ll notice often — it barely looks like anything. But all the more for it, this column is my attempt to illuminate unseen experiences and lives, at Harvard and beyond, and to contribute to all of us finding a way forward together.
It’s a smile that says, “I don’t know why I’m here or where I’m going, and I don’t want to walk any farther; but others have felt this way before me, and I’ll find my own way too.”
Ben T. Elwy ’23 lives in Quincy House. Their column, “The Smiles We Choose,” appears on alternating Thursdays.
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