Friday, March 24, 2006

lenten journal: peoplescape

What then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who does ask me, I don’t know.
Augustine of Hippo

While I was waiting to meet my brother yesterday afternoon, I sat in Starbucks and read A Matter of Time, a special edition from Scientific American. I don’t read the magazine on a regular basis, but I picked it up because time is one of the things that fascinates me most. As I began to read, I smiled at the fact that I was in a town where I don’t live, in a coffee shop where I knew no one, without a phone so no one could find me to tell me where to go next; time was of no consequence.

In one of the articles, “That Mysterious Flow,” Paul Davies writes,

Because nature abounds with irreverisible physical processes, the second law of thermodynamics plays a key role in imprinting on the world a conspicuous asymmetry between past and future directions on the time axis. By convention, the arrow of time points toward the future. This does not imply, however, that the arrow is moving toward the future, any more than a compass needle pointing north indicates that the compass is traveling north. Both arrows symbolize an asymmetry, not a movement. The arrow of time denotes an asymmetry of the world in time, not an asymmetry or flux of time. The labels “past” and “future” may legitimately be applied to temporal directions, just as “up” and “down” may be applied to spatial directions, but talk of the past or the future is as meaningless as referring to the up or the down.

(This is the place where Ginger stops reading; the time stuff makes her eyes roll back in her head.)

Davies says physicists prefer “to think of time as laid out in its entirety – a timescape, analogous to a landscape – with all past and future events located there together. They call it “block time,” where all times are equally real. One other quote:

Nothing other than the conscious observer registers the flow of time.

My brother bounded in from his meeting about the time I finished the article to say he only had forty-five minutes before he had to catch a flight back to Memphis. Our serendipitous encounter was going to be short-lived; we were now conscious observers. We made the best of what time we had. He showed me office at his new church (he’s moving to Dallas after his youngest son graduates from high school in May) and then left me there to write and make phone calls. I was once again without need of a ticking clock. I wrote, left messages, and waited for friends to call.

My friend did call to say some folks were gathering for dinner at Campisi's North. I started that direction once I had finished my journal and pulled into a Half Price Books when I hit traffic. I got to the restaurant a little before everyone else, but the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament was on, so I was fine. There were eight or nine of us for dinner. We shared pizza and stories. At no particular time, we went our separate ways and I drove to Lynn and Bob’s, where we had some wine and did our own catching up. I don’t know what time I went to bed. It didn’t matter.

Davies says we miss something important in the conventional view that only the present is real. Though I have been moved by the “Carpe Diem” sentiment as much as the next person, I am also pulled by the timescape idea which says it all matters. We don’t lose the past, we are just father down the road.

I haven’t seen Lynn and Bob in over fifteen years. My friend whose father died and I have not had consistent contact for over a year. If only now mattered, we would all have some explaining to do. But there was no need. Our lives intersected once more on the landscape of life and we picked up where we had left off, past connected to present, friends no matter what time it is.

Where Davies equates time with a landscape, I want to draw an analogy of my own and create a new word: peoplescape. The best way I know to mark time – to find meaning in it – is through relational experience. What matters more than hours logged is really being together. One more extended quote – bear with me:

The distinction between pastness and futureness and “the” past and “the” future is graphically illustrated by imagining a movie of, say, the egg being dropped on the floor and breaking. If the film were run backward through the projector, everyone would see the sequence was unreal. Now imagine if the film strip were cut up in frames and the frames shuffled randomly. It would be a straightforward task for someone to rearrange the stack of frames into a correctly ordered sequence, with the broken egg at the top of the stack and the intact egg at the bottom. . . . It is not necessary for the film actually to be run as a movie for the arrow of time to be discerned.

Sixteen years of living a long way off from many of the people I love most makes for a huge stack of wishes that we could have spent more time together. It is easy to look at life gone by and lament what we missed. I have missed some things in the lives of my friends and family I wish I had not. And, still, I am in their peoplescape and they are in mine. I’m not sure much is accomplished with beginning our conversations after long absences with either apologies or explanations. All time is equal. We are here. We are together. We have memories to share, pizza to eat, and plans to make.

I look at the peoplescape of my life and I see those whom I call friends, some past, some present, and there are some still to come. Together they stack up for me into a life full of grace, love, and hope.



Fen said...

I love your imagery. It relieved a little guilt I feel from time to time about people I've lost touch with in the last few years. I do feel in my soul we'll connect again.

One thought occurred to me about what the "experts" said about time being like a landscape or a block of time. The thought was... these experts are tasting something of Creation and our Creator. A day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day. It's all on a continuum. He knows the past. He knows the present. He knows the future. All at once. The block of "time" was laid out by the Father of Time. I don't know if this magazine is written from a Creation worldview, but I giggled at the idea that some atheist scientists might be tasting Holiness without realizing it.

don't eat alone said...


One of the places I find that science has some appreciation for mystery and faith is in physics. These are folks who understand they can't explain everything and their attempts to articulate what is happening is not an attempt to destroy that mystery. They are the great explorers of our time, I think.


Bill said...

I'm sure you realize this on reflection, but not all scientists are atheists. In fact, in my experience, not even a majority of them are. In the same way, not all religious people are ignorant. My father is a molecular physicist and has said many times to people who asked about faith and science, "Let's see, God said Let there be light, and there was light. How much bigger of a bang could you want. He has also observed many times that the tools of faith and those of science are completly different. Trying to solve the problems of one with the tools of the other makes about as much sense as trying to work on your automobile engine with a carpenter's saw.

Fen said...

Hmm.... I guess that is the danger in putting something in writing. Did I imply somehow that I believe all scientists are atheists? If I did, I certainly want to recant because that isn't what I believe or meant. (I believe my phrase was "some atheist scientists.") But I do know a handful of very intelligent people who also happen to deny the existence of God. It tickled me to think that people (one in particular I'm thinking of) would "discover" this "new" idea about time that is really as old as the Ancient of Days. That was all I meant.

Bill said...

The danger of putting something in writing is that either your reader makes a quantum leap to something you didn't intend or you don't quite phrase it the way you meant -- or both. I read "atheist-scientists" as if it was one word, but I can see clearly that you wrote "atheist scientists" as two very distinct words. Anyway, I wasn't very upset and hope I didn't sound that way. I was just trying to clarify. And in my lifetime I have been around enough scientists who thought they were God that I do chuckle about them having a Eureka moments (entirely from their own, self-created intelligence, of course) regarding transcendence. One of my father's colleagues was Jewish by birth and Unitarian as a social expression. He told me that the Unitarian creed was, "We believe in one God -- at most." haha
I hope we're cool.

Fen said...

Thanks for your words and explanation. We're absolutely cool.

One of the many things I like about this new blog world is being pushed a little in my thinking and in my wording.