© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.
When a person reaches the 76th year he can develop the notion that, because he has lived through — even studied — much history, he has accumulated a dense patina of knowledge in his brain; yet he also feels afflicted by the suspicion that he does not know how to apply it. I recall in my youth enduring various puzzling illnesses and mechanical problems which, after healing or correcting by learning the causes and applying the proper treatments or techniques, I have said to myself, “There now, in the future when I come across this situation again, I will know what to do!” The only problem with that assumption is that the illness or mechanical failure seems never to repeat itself. There is always a new puzzle to ponder. Because of a few such episodes in my recent past, the idea of composing this essay flowered in my brain.
Einstein said that time and space are the same. I take that remark to mean that if I get up from this chair and walk over to my bookcase, about fifteen feet away, I will be walking into the future; and that if I turn around and walk back to my chair, I will be walking into the past, because I am going the same distance, over the same area, over the same period of time, only in reverse — just like the “rewind” device on my VCR. But I don’t feel that to be the case, for I have aged infinitesimally during both transits. (I wonder, to render this example valid, would it be necessary for me to retrace my steps backward rather than doing an about-face and proceeding forward again but in the opposite direction?)
I’m a very time-sensitive person, and the only place I feel that I am delving into the past is in the memory sections of the brain (the pre-frontal lobe [short-term] and the hippocampus [long-term]). Of course there are extant, exterior entities, such as an old photo or a “golden oldie” sound recording, even a scent, that can stir and augment memories.
A strange aspect of some memories is that they have made me imagine that the events which they relate still exist. Those particularly vivid memories, though very transient, are so palpable as to make their events’ extinction seem improbable. When I had such a memory unfold in my mind one day recently, I wondered where I would have to search to recover the event itself; but I quickly shook off that notion after realizing that every event has preceding and subsequent events, and I could not bring back that singular, desirable scene without also summoning its past and future. That enterprise would require a time machine.
Before you summon the guys in white coats, consider a few sentences from an article in last January’s Harper’s magazine. Titled “WHAT CAME BEFORE THE BIG BANG?”, the essay was written by MIT physicist and novelist (what a combination) Alan Lightman. Actually, in the sentences I will quote here, Lightman is referring not to his own cosmological theory but to one being investigated by another MIT scientist, Alan Guth, and California Institute of Technology physicist Sean Carroll. Their hypothesis, known as the “Two-Headed time theory”, according to Lightman, proposes that the order of our universe, then much smaller than an atom, “was at a maximum at the Big Bang; disorder increased both before and after…. (T)he forward direction of time is determined by the movement of order to disorder. Thus the future points away from the Big Bang in two directions. A person living in the contracting phase of the universe sees the Big Bang in her past, just as we do. When she dies, the universe is larger than when she was born, just as it will be for us. ‘When I come to understand that the reason I can remember the past but not the future is ultimately related to conditions at the Big Bang, that was a startling epiphany,’ said Carroll.
Lightman compares the expansion and contraction phases of the universe to that children’s toy, the “Slinky”, which, as he points out, “reaches maximum compression on impact, and then bounces back to larger dimensions. Because of the unavoidable fluctuations required by quantum physics, the contracting universe would not be an exact mirror image of the expanding universe; a physicist named Alan Guth probably did not exist in the contracting phase of our universe.” Still, there is always that wiggle room left by “probably”.
Lightman describes a few other theories of the “origin” of the universe, none of which allow for the notion of time and therefore do not consider “before” and “after” and therefore are outside the province of my essay here. However, I do want to bring in one more analogy that Lightman uses to characterize the expanding/contracting phases of the universe: a movie of a glass dropped on a tile floor, shattering, then recombining and flying back up to the table top from which it fell. If I think of the glass shards as events in my life, and of the possibility that they are scattered now out there in the vastness of space/time, and that they might someday in the far-off future recombine to become those events again, then my dream, as I related above, of summoning memories is not so absurd as you readers might have judged earlier. Heh?
We are frequently advised by gurus of various varieties to “live in the moment” in order to be happy. Who am I to argue with that formula? Only it doesn’t work for me. Why?
Well, I think it’s partly a function of Fate: I don’t have any choice but to live in the moment, yet the present seldom smiles on me, definitely not for more than a few hours. The present, in fact, seems like the target on a dart board where missiles are continually bombarding. I keep looking for that day when I can proceed from arising to retiring without some, at the least, irksome or, at the most, catastrophic encounter. I can’t recall the last time I gamboled through such a day, although I feel certain there have been some, quite likely many such. They were just too long ago. (And here, I see, I can’t even write about the present without bringing in the past and the future: depending on one’s definition of “the present”, it seems impossible to separate it from those periods. Is the present this day, this experience, or really just this “moment”? )
Another problem with the “live in the moment” prescription, not just for me but for every adult, I believe, is that even in our most positive moments we have to consider future events: college, career, possibly marriage, elections, and retirement funding. A host of other, smaller concerns requiring decisions are scattered through our lives. As one old humorist expressed it, “Why does any man examine the teeth of a horse he is thinking of buying and yet forgo checking out his prospective bride’s teeth?”
Laying all that aside, just how do I confront the present? That is too big a question. I mean, in this time I cannot ignore the fact that many of the problems I have to face also stand before almost everybody else: crazy politicians rattling their sabers, oncoming weird weather disasters and famines, fanatical gun toters, out-of-control medical and housing prices, etc. I can’t limit all those problems to myself. The conundrum, then, for me is: How can I separate out what affects only me from what affects everybody else? I cannot totally and sensibly demarcate those boundaries. Yes, there are a few somewhat private health issues which I have, but even they, as types, also afflict at least some small portions of the population; how I weary of hearing a “comforting” friend utter, “Oh, that’s just part of getting old!” or “Yeah, that stuff has been going around lately!” Why cannot my current problem be mine…individual…alone?
My, how the calendar has shrunk! It used to be the case that when someone reminded me that some event took place last year, I could imagine an expanse of time with body to it. Now “last year” seems like what we once-upon-a-time called “last month”. I’m not sure whether this change is due to aging in me or to a more encompassing phenomenon which Alvin Toffler described as the perception of “too much change in too short a period of time” in his book Future Shock back in 1970. If the latter, then it is really weird how external events can cause one’s notion of a calendar period to shrink. There is now a whole “scientific” field of people — called “futurists” — who gather data from a large array of sources to predict what the future holds. Simple crystal balls and astronomical charts are passé.
When one reaches an age as advanced as my own, he or she is confronted with the reality that their options have greatly shrunk. There is no point in our seeking another academic field or degree, although we might have fun and benefit from taking a “continuing education” course occasionally. And we might look at our overloaded bookshelves, count the books we haven’t read, and resolve for the nth time never again to enter that bookstore a few blocks away. I swear! I must have bought all those books just because they are so decorative! Oh me, oh my!
Nor are we to get married…not sensibly anyway. Oh, if we are very wealthy and are seduced by a beautiful, young “honey-pot” into being her “sugar-daddy”, we might find ourselves wandering down that church aisle or into that Las Vegas drive-thru wedding chapel. Or, if we are much less affluent, we might marry someone nearer our own age just because we each anticipate the other will at least nurse us through our final days. The latter case is a little less contaminated by folly or predatoriness but does retain some of the strategical about it: no hot romantic blood there certainly.
But there are other issues that affect not just me and my ilk but many, many other Americans. The news media daily reminds us that we have several potential, horrifying fates lying in wait for us — climate change disasters; the threat of religious and political radicalisms; dissolution of welfare programs, including Social Security; Alzheimer’s disease; and Donald Trump as president. And those are just the severest ones. Although we should not let them overwhelm us to the extent that we can prevent them from doing so, we still have to pay attention to them in order to prevent, or at least defend ourselves against, them. So, in that very deep sense we are attached to the future.