universe

What is Time?

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

For the first few years of childhood, we exist in a bubble. Inside this bubble, the world is in stasis. We know our place in the universe, and consequently the universe doesn’t seem to be all that scary a place. Then something curious happens.

The world begins to change.

At first, it only seems to change in small ways. We notice the cycles in the sky. We begin to track the passing of the seasons. But the things that really matter, the people we love and the security we find in the bosom of the familiar, they remain fixed, and so we regard these discoveries with only a passing curiosity. Then something uncomfortable happens.

The world changes some more.

The warm inviting cocoon that we were born into begins to break down. We graduate from school. Get a job. The people we love move on. Important landmarks are torn down to make way for shopping malls and apartments. One by one, everything we loved is either rewritten or lost forever.

Before too long, we’re surrounded by a hostile alien world. We start to feel the ravages of age, creeping up on us like deadly vines, and we realize it’s only a matter of time before this cruel existence of ours comes to an unpredictable end. We gaze about, exiles in our own backyard, and we can’t help but wonder, “What is time?”

Time is currency.

Each of us has a fixed balance, deposited at the moment of conception, and everything we do is accompanied by a corresponding withdrawal. Like money, we can choose to spend it wisely, doing worthwhile activities that enrich ourselves and others, or we can fritter it away on wasted hours, sitting around on the couch or laying in bed because we have nothing better to do. We would do well to make the most of what we have, lest we spend our deathbed hours as beggars, scrounging in the gutter for chronological crumbs in our haste to make up for a lifetime of regret.

Time is a veil.

A cosmic curtain, time keeps the past, the present and the future neatly partitioned, allowing us to experience life in manageable bite-sized chunks. Usually this veil is opaque. But every so often, especially as we advance in age, it begins to stretch and pull like taffy, made thin and partially transparent so that in moments of intense reflection, we feel that if only we peer a bit closer, we might yet sight those spectres of the past we’d thought lost years ago.

Time is an ocean.

A vast expanse of cause and effect stretching all the way back to the Big Bang, we navigate its treacherous waters like sailors, attempting to stay afloat for as long as possible while we map the uncharted regions of the future.

Time is motion.

Like a river it flows, sweeping us away in its implacable current, making vagrants of us all. Those who stop and turn back to mourn the increasingly hazy past are dragged by their feet kicking and screaming, torn away from everything and everyone they ever loved.

Time is a fire.

It blazes across the universe, burning everything in its path, reducing the cosmos to ash. Not a one of us escapes its ageless and insatiable maw. It strips us to our souls, consuming the rest in a brilliant infernal flash. As Delmore Schwartz puts it in Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day, “time is the fire in which we burn.”

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.

You Are a Universe

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Have you ever gazed at the stars, pondered a vastness you couldn’t begin to comprehend and asked yourself if you’re really that significant, if you’re anything more than a speck on a grain of sand in a sprawling desert?

If so, take heart. Though you may be small in stature, the world inside your soul is astronomical, a boundless cosmos pregnant with thoughts and dreams, experiences and beliefs, all of which cluster into more complex structures: the humanities, the sciences, an infinite expanse of human endeavors that’s as vast as any material universe.

At the beginning of life, like the beginning of our universe, your mind, though tiny, is a roiling mass seething with enormous quantities of potential energy. In just a few short years, it expands. It acquires language and experience. Synapses form, transforming your brain into a thinking feeling powerhouse. In the process, prototypical thoughts and beliefs collide. Some are annihilated; others emerge from the rubble.

As you age, these units of thought coalesce, condensing into more stable structures. Your experiences, your perceptions, all that you think and feel, everything that defines you and makes you who you are is drawn together. Then, pressurized in the forge of the imagination, it ignites. Books are written. Technologies emerge. Diseases are cured. Outward expressions of the soul burn like stars, saving the world from darkness.

At some point in your life, you’ll likely be pulled into another person by the intense gravitational force of love. There will be a collision, and like the Big Bang, a whole new cosmos will form, a world filled with shared dreams and common experiences. Couples will cluster into families, families into communities, communities into states and nations, worlds stacked upon worlds.

When faced with the enormity of the stars, you might be tempted to conclude that your existence is just so much flotsam adrift in a celestial sea. But though you may be small when compared with the length, width and height of the universe, if you instead measure yourself against a more existential dimension, you’ll discover a whole new universe, waiting to be explored.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.

How Your Imagination Is Like a Mirror

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

I’ve always been fascinated by reflections.

On the surface, a reflection is so ordinary, so mundane, so uninteresting. And why not? We see them everywhere we go. We look at our twin in the mirror every morning. We catch glimpses of upside down skies in puddles left behind by rainstorms every Spring. And we know — have known since early childhood — that they’re nothing more than reflected rays of light. How can something so simple and so common possibly be interesting?

But what if a reflection were something more? What if, whenever you looked in the mirror, you glimpsed the doings of another world, parallel in every way to our own? Perhaps these are not merely rays of light reflected back from our universe, but rays of light projected from another. Maybe, this other universe is populated with its own people, each gazing into their own reflections, worlds stacked upon worlds. And perhaps some of them are gazing back at us.

Suddenly, by the incredible power of the imagination, something ordinary has been transformed into something extraordinary. Your vision has been forever altered. For the rest of your life, when you look in the mirror, a part of you, if only a very small part, will wonder if the man or the woman you see every morning is really just a reflection.

And that’s not all.

The sense of mystery and childlike wonder that you experience in your imagination, it bounces back. It’s reflected, like light off a mirror. You begin to see ordinary things in this new light, and you suddenly realize that they’re not so mundane and uninteresting after all.

In the case of a simple reflection, you might ponder the nature of light. You might wonder what makes it bounce from one surface to the next. Eventually, you’ll feel the need to search for answers. And when you do, you’ll discover just how surreal and otherworldly reality actually is.

Once you do, neither you nor the world around you will ever be the same.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.