Time Machines

I’ve written about this before, the pernicious effects of clinging too tightly to linear time, like the basic mistakes of pattern recognition and an obsession with knowing an unknowable future. These are the basic ingredients of anxiety, both of the “do I have enough food to get me to the finish line” AND the awake-at-2am varieties. Anxiety wrecks the present moment. It’s the opposite of mindfulness (not at all assuming you always want to be mindful)*. Anxiety is a disfunction in which we try to extrapolate future tragedy from the limited data of the now.

There’s a false conceit here, that if we can, in fact, successfully extrapolate the likely future tragedy, then there is something we can and should be doing in this moment to change course. Anxiety is future looking, but its real power is in stoking fear in the present. That’s the shit that keeps you awake. It’s the mistaken conclusion that you’d be better off just quitting.

Again, I think these are mainly errors related to time perception, fatal flaws in our still-Newtonian sense of order.

I started to think more deeply about time when I was in high school, reading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Billy Pilgrim, the novel’s main character, comes unstuck in time. It’s how he deals with trauma, how he copes with tragedy. I read that book at a time when I was just becoming aware that life could be cruel, and it struck me as powerful, this ability to live events in a non-linear way, to be able to shift perspectives more fluidly. I was young then, and idealistic, and probably still believed in magic on some level.

I studied philosophy in college and was drawn to the existentialists who decided that existence precedes essence. In other words, you are what you make of yourself, not necessarily what you are made of, at birth. It’s a whole view of human experience that seeks to shrug off the shackles of determinism and plow forward with free will. When I encountered these ideas I was drinking and doing a lot of drugs, and I liked what I was hearing, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to dig in and understand how any of the mechanisms of free will might work. I didn’t see the pitched battle between logic and belief, or how basic physics might inform the discussion.

As an aside, I am not very clever, and most of the time I have no idea what I don’t know. Even these words now are just the latest revision of a choppy, messy, first coherent draft of what I think. I am often wrong.

Lately, I have been reading physics, trying to get some of the basic concepts and relate them to my life, my lived experience, my half-formed ideas. I can tell you it’s pretty mind-blowing stuff, but then you would know that, because everyone knows that. I see now that Newton changed the world, but that Einstein changed it again, and more comprehensively. I also see that humanity hasn’t quite caught up yet. We’re still living Newtonian ideas, not having assimilated Einstein. It’s heavy shit. I get it. But we have to move our ideas forward, right? Always and forever?

In typical fashion, even though I was reading and trying to understand how time works, it wasn’t until watching a popular Netflix series with time-traveling characters that some practical ideas occurred to me. I’m not going to recount the show’s plot, because it’s not important. What’s important is putting yourself in the shoes of a person stepping out of a time machine, stepping out of linear experience. That person has to think hard about what’s happening right in front of them and how to react. THAT is mindfulness, an imperative moment in stark relief.

I realized then that I could cultivate that imperative in any moment I chose by disregarding the data I had been collecting (likely subconsciously) and disavowing the future. I could just try to interpret the moment and give it what it wanted. Maybe it’s a harder trick than I make it out, but here are some ideas that help.

First, the past has no objective existence. It’s quite literally a story we tell ourselves. Our story doesn’t match anyone else’s, and if that’s true, then we have to admit that our story is probably substantively false. We’ve been extrapolating the correct course of action based on a faulty data set. Try predicting a numeric pattern from a set that includes mostly variables. Now ask yourself what the past is worth.

Second, none of us is a seer. I have been wrong about the future, in its details, pretty close to 100% of the time. The future almost never looks like you expect it to, and that’s a real gift. It means you have a reason to push on and see what’s going to happen, and also a solid basis for ceasing to read the tea leaves. They’re just wet tea.

Three hundred years ago, we didn’t have time zones. We didn’t need them. We didn’t schedule the events of our days to begin and end on the quarter hour mark. We didn’t live lifetimes that were predictably long. Our relation to time was wholly different.

Listen, my shoes are a pair of time machines. They will not take me to the future, except in a very limited immediate way, and they won’t drop me in the past. What they will do, as I dance between stone and root, dab at some sweat on my forehead, reposition my jacket, and look up the trail, is eliminate the need for a future or a past to tell me what I ought to be doing, and that, believe me, is a better trick than I ever imagined possible. On the occasions when I wake up at 2am, confusingly working on a problem that has not yet presented itself, I can pull back, close my eyes, lay in the bed, and remember there is no future. It’s all just a dream, and maybe I need to pee.

‘* Mindfulness gets applied like so many good ideas, as a panacea, unquestionably good in all circumstances, and I just don’t buy that. When I’m 15 miles in a run and my body hurts, I’m not trying to invest in the present moment. I’m practicing some palliative dissociation. I’m compartmentalizing. That’s just one of a myriad examples.