IMAGE: Kaboom, Grucci Brothers firework exploding over Red Bank, New Jersey | (Prints available)
I had a much different post planned. It began with an anecdote about my UPS guy apologizing for arriving later in the day than he usually came because he was waylaid by a holiday rush and how I, coming off an afternoon spent reading metaphysics and philosophy, very nearly reassured him, “It’s okay, time is all an illusion anyway,” then caught myself about to act weird with a normal person and decided to keep that for Twitter instead.
But honestly, I don’t think I am alone in feeling constantly preoccupied with current events and national politics lately. I don’t think it would be a stretch to more accurately describe it as feeling held hostage by my emotions and anxiety over the state of things. It seems trivial and tone deaf to discuss anything else in the face of child prisons and concentration camps being set up for immigrants or the rapid erosion of civil rights, but I can’t imagine you are looking for more of that here. If you are, I will refer you to previous posts, “Some ways to get through this mess” (particularly the tips for self-care) and “Keep Your Powder Dry,” or if you’re looking for something much more poetic and immediate with an excellent invocation of Adrienne Rich, please enjoy my mother’s friend Hugh’s recent post, “Tattered Kaddish.”
So this will be something a bit more esoteric and spiritual about time, which I must preface with the reminder that you cannot control everything that happens in life, only how you respond to it, and this is the way you shape your experience in the world.
In May, I attended an amazing talk at the New York Public Library called Together in Time, framed as a discussion between philosopher Jim Holt and theoretical physicist and philosopher Carlo Rovelli. More than a few times during this talk I felt like the student Gary Larson drew in one of my favorite Far Side cartoons, plaintively raising his hand to ask to be excused because his brain was too full.
© Gary Larson, The Far Side
Just as I was thinking it wasn’t possible to feel any dumber than I did in that moment, Dr. Rovelli put forward one of the more beautiful metaphors I’ve yet encountered for how to wrap our minds around things we don’t understand. Before space exploration, he explained, our only understanding of the sun was that it went up in the sky during the day and sunk below the horizon at night, so a geocentric understanding of the cosmos made perfect sense: we were working with limited information. Once we ascended into the heavens with telescopes, observations of astronomical phenomena, and eventual travel into space, we gained a much clearer heliocentric view of the solar system where the Earth was a small part of something much bigger orbiting around the sun, thus we could more fully understand our place in the cosmos. He likened our understanding of time – this linear and immutable arrow that progresses from the past to the present to the future, dragging our consciousness along with it – to only watching the sun rise and set and proclaiming that is all there is to the universe.
As he presented increasingly more beautiful and mind-boggling ideas about time and the ways our understanding is bound by our relationships to it (which you can explore further in his book The Order of Time) I filled several pages with notes, questions, and thoughts his words illuminated for me, which I am still processing. The Q&A, as one might have anticipated, was almost exclusively about time travel, with audience members presenting various versions of the same paradoxes and riddles about its possibility. At times Dr. Rovelli seemed as exasperated as I felt, to disregard all these amazing philosophical and spiritual ideas we could be discussing to focus on science fiction instead, but he patiently explained that perhaps we are just limited in our linear perception and recollection of time. We have memories of the past, and we form our sense of self in the present as a collection of those experiences and characteristics that we feel have made us who we are. This sense of self and “how we are” then guides our actions in the future. But all of this, he emphasized, is a creative process, as our memories are built and rebuilt in the mind with each recollection, as subject to shifts in perspective and understanding as our present. He imagined a species of “super-perceivers,” who were not bound by the linear perception of time that we have and instead could experience past, present, and future in a continuity. This super-perception is, essentially, to master time travel, recognizable as having memories of the future.
Summer in the Bronx | (Prints available)
If I were feeling less insecure about my ignorance in physics (there were some mega-smarties in that audience) or if I have another opportunity to talk with Dr. Rovelli in person someday, I would desperately like to discuss the spiritual dimensions of time and consciousness and direct experiences I’ve had of remembering the future (as I know many others have too). I don’t mean ordinary déjâ vu or temporal lobe misfiring, but actual times where I’ve had vivid dreams or visions of weird things that hadn’t happened yet, written them down in my journal, and then months or years later, experienced them almost exactly as I dreamt them. I know the argument could be made that I somehow willed those moments into being (though they often include people I haven’t met yet and I can’t imagine why I’d waste such a superpower on such mundane scenarios) but I am much more enchanted by the idea that we all have a faint ability to occasionally remember the future. I believe we can cultivate this ability, so I’ve chosen to treat lucid and predictive dreams as communications from both my subconscious and my future self, trying to guide me in some way.
Perhaps our experience of time is nowhere near as linear as we believe, and there is some space in the mind that always already holds everything we’ve been and will be. We can choose to live in this present moment, watching the sun go up and down and believing we are hopelessly bound by our past – and that the future is set – or we can open ourselves up to a less linear experience of history, informed by our future. In this way, ideals and progressive thinking are means to access our better natures, remembering the future we could (and should) be living together. Whenever we hear that inner voice saying, “This is so wrong!” we are receiving guidance for the path forward, if we learn to listen closely.
The Bengali poet, mystic, and polymath Rabindranath Tagore (we’ll get into that obsession another time) wrote, “Wrong cannot afford defeat but Right can.” (Stray Birds, verse 68). It is an act of faith to trust in the future, to believe that some of what we imagine are actually memories from our distant selves pulling us forward like shamans. It is an enormous challenge to open ourselves up to be transformed, but I think it is the only path.
It is a small thought, to experience ourselves and time this way, but I believe if you plant this seed in your mind, you may find it grows into something beautiful, resilient, and strong, resembling hope. We can remember the better times yet to come and find our way there if we refuse to give up working for it.