Sunday, January 4, 2015

Space and Time

The Christmas season was fantastic. Prime time with the family. Tree comes down tonight, and the New Year seems a convenient opportunity to recommit to accomplishing my 40th Year goals: Installing a New Program

Haven't written much over the past three weeks, because besides holiday stuff, flu season exploded at my clinic. Between work, sickness, and holidays, time has been scant.

And that's what I want to address briefly tonight, this crazy thing we call time, and our perceived scarcity of it.

For the most part, I feel young still. But I'm getting older, at the crest of the hill, my midlife summer solstice. The days start shortening from here on out. That's almost impossible for me to believe. Time seems to be playing tricks on me more and more.

I've always had a temperamental concept of time. I think most of us have this weird sensation periodically. I remember as a Mormon missionary in Brazil in the early 1990s first hearing the phrase, "The days are like weeks, and the weeks are like days." That seemed so profoundly paradoxical, especially in that season of my life. Each day seemed to stretch from dawn to dark, chock-full of activities and meetings and things that seemed so eternally consequential. And yet I'd look up and two months had gone by, and I was being transferred to a new area, ever closing in on the end of my 24 month assignment. It lasted forever, and then suddenly it was over. When these transfers occurred, I remember feeling mixtures of angst and sorrow.  "No!" I thought, "It's slipping away, never to return, and I haven't appreciated it fully!" This same relationship with time continued through college and med school.

Parenting upped the ante. All of us parents know how disconcerting it can be to realize, with a gulp in the throat, that somehow, in some unstoppable way, your infant is now a toddler is now a grade-schooler, and your daughter went from age nine to age thirteen overnight. And equally terrifying, you realize that process is never going to reverse. The time train moves only one direction, at least in our reference frame. (Unless you're Benjamin Button.)

But then you get to looking at family photo albums, and you realize that all the momentous things that happened since 2006, which seem surprisingly fresh in the memory banks, happened before your youngest was even born. How can that be? You mean our 2006 Honda Pilot, which still seems like a somewhat newish vehicle to me, is a year older than my littlest? Impossible. He's been with us forever.

A new wrinkle in this phenomenon is playing out this year. Age 40 is such a convenient milestone that it's easy to gaze forward and back in time and think, What was I doing ten years ago? and Where will I be in another ten? Twentieth high school reunion is 3 years in the bag. Suddenly age 50 isn't so far away--I'll have three kids in college?? Better start saving! Then age 60 and retirement seems right around the corner from that--how's my 401K doing?? 70 and 80 aren't far behind, and then . . . well, then the end approaches.

I think about trees I planted last year. By the time they reach the current height of the trees they are supposed to eventually replace, I'll be circling the drain.

I had a cardiologist mentor in residency who used to tell his patients, "My job is to get you to age 85. Everything after that is gravy." I've taken that to heart. I hope to live a vigorous, intellectually and physically active lifestyle up to age 85. That's when I'll start taking up high risk sports--ice climbing, anyone? So that gives me 45 years. (Hey, that means I'm not quite at the halfway point yet . . .)

But through all of these oscillations through time, my whole life I've struggled with that feeling of preemptive nostalgia. "I'm missing it! It's slipping away from me! Slow down, please. STOP!" I still feel those desperate epiphanies of my own mortality, the essential ephemerality of my life. But it's less now. I feel less clingy to the moment. I'm less of a packrat. Less concerned about clutching memories, or about what happens next week, or in the next life. And I think that's a good step for me.

I've seen a couple thought-provoking movies in the last few weeks dealing with the concept of time. The first was Interstellar by Christopher Nolan. Overall, I liked this movie, but there were giant plot holes (beyond mere relativity paradoxes), and I was disappointed because I hoped for a little more from the man who gave us Inception, that most perfect of movies.

But I really liked the central thrust of this story, that a father must travel to a black hole in another galaxy in order to enter another dimension where he must manipulate time and gravity to communicate with his daughter before he even left, and thus save the earth. Somewhat mind-bending. This plot device allows him to distantly observe his daughter aging while he enters a relativity-induced time slow-down. A few weeks to him passes as a few decades to her. Eventually, they reunite, where she has reached advanced age, crippled and dying, while he's still a strapping middle-aged man. Then strangely, this father-daughter reunion, which was the central thrust of the movie, lasts all of five minutes before Matthew McConaughey commandeers another spaceship (one that, being invented 50 years after his earth-age, he should have no business knowing how to pilot, right?) But never mind that. It's the fire in his heart that drives him on another urgent (why so urgent Matthew? You've got a looong time to figure this out!) death-defying mission to rescue the girl he loves who may or may not be alive in another galaxy . . . so geriatric-dying daughter be damned! True love calls.  (That's what I mean by some glaring holes . . .)

But the haunting line from the movie that serves as its emotional center is this, delivered in Matthew McConaughey's laconic Texas drawl: "We are the ghosts of our children's future." What we do now--or don't do--will reverberate across time and space. Ripples going out and coming back to us. Now is forever.

And then last night, Elizabeth and I saw a phenomenal movie that again featured black holes and had the passage of time as a central motif, but this one was in fact a perfect film: The Theory of Everything, the true story of the marriage of atheist astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who is still alive but suffers from total physical debilitation from his Lou Gehrig's disease, and his church-going humanities-oriented PhD wife, Jane. 

The acting was Oscar worthy and totally convincing.  (Eddie Redmayne, are you sure you're not Stephen Hawking? ) There is an unexpected twist in the movie, so I won't spoil it, because you really should see this movie. But let's just say the movie is replete with tensions between faith and science, theirs being a literal marriage of the two. Their love and loyalty was tested to unpredictable depths as his illness progressed. There is a fair amount of digestible physics, culminating in Hawking's insight that time, like space, was once compressed into a single instant at the Big Bang, meaning (as I understand it) that to ask the question of what happened before the Big Bang is not a valid question. There was no before or after. All time was present in that singular instant. 

Spirals figured prominently in the movie. Staircases, coffee clouds, galaxies. So it was the final scene of the movie, beginning as Stephen and Jane are watching their children spiraling through a lush garden, that made me suddenly catch my breath, a moment of movie magic, a literal, spiraling rewind of the clock that seemed to merge the spiritual with the physical. "Look what we made," Stephen says through his computerized voice, as they watch their turbulent marriage flash before their eyes, a marriage which, despite its ups and downs and total improbability, produced these beautiful children before them. It rewinds all the way back to where they first kissed on a spring night by a river in the soft lights of evening. 

Ever since adolescence--for some reason beginning after my grandmother's funeral--I've been intermittently, acutely aware of the passage of time. I've heard it said somewhere that we are shackled to the the front of a speeding one-way train of time, propelled forward at the cutting edge of history, where it is always now. Or put another way, "Time is the school in which we learn, time is the fire in which we burn." This sense of time slipping away has had real effects on my lifestyle and life decisions. (For instance, I've paid for way too many speeding tickets. But hey, I've got to get from point A to point B as fast as I can, right? Time is wasting!)

When I was a believing Mormon, I seemed to feel all of this angst about time acutely, even to the point of occasional paralysis. There was a program laid out for me, very schematic, something we were all plugged into, The Great Plan of Salvation. I was special, born into a believing family in "the fullness of time," and thus my mortal life on earth was a thing with consequences that would ripple throughout eternities, worlds without number. This seemed so pressure-packed! There was some other time and place that really mattered, and this moment, this life, was just a stepping stone, or, more problematically, an obstacle to that. And stepping stones, indeed! They were many and relentless. There was a beginning, middle, and end, defined steps, to be done sequentially and at important chronological milestones: ages 8, 12, 14, 16, 18, 19, 21. . .  Just hop on the train, make all the required stops, and you'll be guaranteed to make it to your final destination. Then enjoy your reward!

But I've come to think differently now. (At least I'm trying to. Old thought habits die hard.) There's nothing out there. There's nothing next. There is no Tree of Life at the end of the Iron Rod along the Straight and Narrow Path. There is no veil. There is no Celestial Kingdom. At least nothing that exists "out there." The Kingdom of God is within us. Right here, right now. Nowhere=Now/Here. Forever is Now. Now is Forever.

Or as Master Oogway from the immortal King Fu Panda said:

"You're too concerned about what was and what will be. There is a saying: Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift, that's why it's called the present."
I always loved the final verse of Amazing Grace, and its attempt to convey the timelessness of heaven:
When we've been there ten thousand years, 
Bright shining as the sun, 
We've no less days to sing God's praise 
Than when we've first begun.

That's sort of it, I guess, except we don't have to wait for a heaven, or for ten thousand years, to have that enlightenment. Infinite doesn't mean a gazillion + 1. To say that this life is just a small dot on the timeline of eternity seems to miss the point. Any division of infiniti? Still infiniti. You can't paraphrase it, or fast forward it, or pause it. You experience it, right now, in its fullness, like it or not.

This is a tough one to wrap my finite, goal-oriented Western mind around. I feel like, when I'm getting into peaceful abiding in my meditation practice, I almost get there, can almost taste it. But never just quite. And never for too long. Time pulls me back onto its train, into its slow burn. But it's still fun to try, and important. And frustrating and scary. Because when we start looking at this time, this moment, this instant, as an actual infiniti, then boundaries begin to blur, self begins to dissolve a little more. And there's something about our minds, when faced with extinction or sublimation, that flails for the brakes. "Self"-preservation.

This psychological battle with time promises to be a life long struggle, until one day time runs out, and then it's not.

(Here's a song I wrote a few years ago about this tension:  Space and Time  Thanks to my brothers Matt and Jeff for playing on it and producing it.)

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