Thursday, February 11, 2016

Always have existed, always will exist

It is 2016. I am 23 years old. I have dark hair, brown eyes, olive toned skin. I know these things, but I also know they won't last forever. Nothing lasts forever.

Every stage of life has felt, at least in some respect, like a continuation. I have never stopped feeling like a kid, never stopped feeling like a teen, never stopped feeling like an undergrad, never stopped feeling like an intern. Though all those stages in my life have elapsed, in my mind they are all still vibrantly, almost tangibly real.

Though it's been a few years since I picked up the book, there is one thing in particular I remember quite vividly from reading Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five: This notion of time existing not as a straight linear progression, but on a sort of continuum. It's somewhat akin to Doctor Who lore. Instead of living in a location bound by space and time, it's the suggestion that we can live outside of our temporal reality and extend our consciousness to past and present.
"The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever." (Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five)
While the book reads as science fiction, there is an inherent truth to its message. While we may live in a moment, we are also not entirely separate from our past and our future - particularly the former. At any moment we choose, we can place ourselves in the past through our memories, the future through our plans, and those experiences can feel almost as real as the present. In the case of dreams, they can feel more real than reality.

I may look back at my childhood and think of it as a time long gone and expired, a period in my life to which I may never return. But in a moment of reminiscence, the thoughts and feelings and sensory responses I had can come back and feel wonderfully, occasionally spookily "in the now."

Perhaps this is why it is so difficult to let go of the previous versions of oneself. Having experienced the various stages of my life, I live in the memories of them and never feel like they are fully over. Each moment leads into another, making up the whole - a whole which is, by its nature, incomplete because it consists of a future as well.

This is all exceedingly metaphysical and perhaps incomprehensible brain melting philosophizing. Yet it's something I feel plays a hugely important role in life.

Do we live based in our present - a moment to moment progression of events? When each is done, we move onto the next? Or do we reside in a more nebulous space of distinct and relevant past, present and future - perhaps divided into even more meaningful categories of recent past, distant past, soon and faraway future?

To me it seems most definitely the latter, and that's what makes the science fiction of Vonnegut's world so impactful and human. The confusion over identity - in my case whether I'm still a kid, a teen, or a college student even after passing those stages in life - is not a question of truth or fiction, but a confirmation of the existence of this continual process and the fact that in some ways some things do last forever.

It will always have been 2016. I will always have been 23. I will always have had dark hair, brown eyes, olive toned skin. I will always know these things, so that knowledge will last forever (even though I cannot).

There's a bittersweetness to all of this. And I think it's why time is at the center of so much of our culture and our art. Our lives revolve around time. But maybe if we stopped thinking about time as such a static state, it would stop being our enemy and start being our companion and friend. In our finite days we are given infinite opportunities. There's beauty in that, there's beauty in time.

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