Copyright (c) 2001 by Kenny Felder

When spiritual people say that life, the world, and even my personality, are all illusions, I can pretty easily buy it. But when they say that time is an illusion, that always trips me up. No time? What would it be like to live in a world without time? You couldn't say "I used to be trapped in time, but now I'm not." You couldn't say, or think, anything longer than one syllable. I just can't begin to picture it. I am totally trapped in my conception of linear time.

And yet...well, there is definitely something weird about the whole "time thing." I grew up on a dead end street. I can still close my eyes and picture that dead end, exactly as it looked. After the end of the street came what we called the "rocky road," a ¼-mile stretch of rocks that led to a power station. Just thinking about it fills me with what it was like to be me, of my family and my life at that time.

But it doesn't exist any more. Years after we moved out, they continued the street—my house is still there, but it isn't a dead end road any more. So where is the rocky road? Of course, it exists in my memory, but besides that, where is it? If that sounds like a meaningless question, think about this: is it possible that my memory of the rocky road is not exactly correct? If that is possible—if it's even meaningful to suggest it—that implies that the rocky road exists somewhere, just so there is something, somewhere, for my memory to not match. Can we say that the rocky road exists in the past? Or can we only say it existed?

This may not be making much sense: let me try another tack. [SKS Founder] Augie Turak once commented that we think "it's tragic that beautiful things have to disappear," but we have it all backward: their ephemeral nature is a key part of the beauty. A plastic rose is less beautiful than a real one. He said this was because the real rose is going to die, and we know it, and that makes it all the more precious in the moment. This was another idea that didn't make sense to me, at the time. But later I was able to connect it with a couple of science fiction stories I read.

The first was an old story from the "golden age" of science fiction—say, the 50s or thereabouts. In this story, they have perfected a technology that lets them take a young child (let's say eight years old) and instantly age him to adulthood—not his body, but his mind. He suddenly knows all the things adults know, but beyond that, he is suddenly mature. He is kind and compassionate and wise, all in an instant. The story focuses on a mother (of course) talking to her eight-year-old son just before he goes in for the operation. "What did we do today, Johnny?" "We went to the park and I went on the swings Mommy." "Did you like it?" "Yes, I liked going on the swings." She hugs him and kisses him and wants to hold him forever, just like that. But she can't. He goes off and has the operation and comes back mature, and compassionate, and wise. It was one of the most depressing things I ever read.

But not as depressing as this other story, which was part of the much more recent novel Hyperion by Dan Simmons. In this story, the terrifying "Shrike" puts a spell on an adult woman, so she starts to age backward—every day she regresses, mentally and physically, losing memories as she goes. She goes back to live with her aging parents. For a while they try to explain it to her every day: "You are a twelve-year-old girl, but you used to be an adult, but you were put under a spell..." Eventually, they give up. They let her just think she is a six-year-old girl, playing with her dolls, blissfully unaware of her adult history and her impending infancy. The whole thing is completely tragic; I was haunted for days.

The child who skips childhood, and goes straight to adulthood, is depressing. The adult who regresses to childhood is equally depressing. Both stories are deliberately, carefully crafted to make you cry when you read them—cry for the bereaved parents, cry for the anachronistic children. Why is it all so depressing? Because somehow, the normal progression from childhood to adulthood is just right. Children are supposed to be children for a long time, and gradually mature, and become adults, and stay adults. Roses are supposed to grow, bloom, and die. Any deviation is horrific.

It's as if the whole system, exactly the way it is, with all its flaws and foibles, is at the same time intensely beautifully perfect. Which is another thing that all the spiritual teachers say, that I never used to understand. But I think I may be starting to, sometimes.

 Kenny Felder's Essays and Commentaries

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