Sunday, May 4, 2014

Unlimited Skies: Escaping the Space-Time Prison

Bird standing on a wire fence

When people say that the sky's the limit, they implicitly agree that the space-time continuum has its constraints. You can reach for the moon and stars, but that is as far as you can possibly go. Many would be happy with that fact, but in reality, space restrains us from moving: Gravity grabs and binds our feet close to the ground, while time may seem eternal until we realize one day that it also comes with its own expiry date.

Our lives then are limited in both space and time. We are born at a certain place and end up buried or cremated somewhere else. The moment we breathe our first breath the stopwatch of our lives is ticking away towards its inevitable demise. We are trapped both in space and time, and there is no loophole, no escape. It is a one-way path that we need to travel alone, each within our own body and consciousness, each of us doomed to walk this road alone.

Our physical space is constrained. Although we can travel within it, we may move from one point to another, we are not free to be anywhere we wish. Certainly, the existence of more modern vehicles, such as cars, helicopters, jets and rockets have opened up a wider and speedier path of physical movement. With current technology we (or rather some of us) can travel beyond the sky and dance on the moon. But we cannot (at least for now) teleport ourselves from one location to another.

More importantly, we cannot be in two places at once. Our bodies need to fill up a specific space; they cannot exist without material space coordinates. And we are dependent upon our body's functioning. We may be limited in how we can move depending on our physical condition, for example, we may be walking at a snail or brisk pace. We may be bed-ridden or wheel-chair-bound, which would restrict our physical movements somewhat more.

Yet it seems that even though the body is firmly rooted in a location, our mental capacities may have more freedom to roam. This is our mental space. In thought, or some may call it spirit, we can transfer or imagine ourselves in another place. Although we may be in a confined space, our thoughts may have wings, as they say, and transport us to the far corners of the moon.

In fact, often depending on our own willingness, our mental space can be restricted or limitless. We may denounce such feats as idle play or see it as an opportunity to transcend our own physical limitations. We may see an alternate version of our lives and perhaps be inspired to strive towards this new vision. Put differently, our minds may be stuck in routine and self-defeating prophecies, or they may be fodder for hopes and dreams driving us towards change and improvement where not even the sky would be the limit.

It is that mental space that has given people in confined spaces the hope and willingness to not give up but to continue with their lives. A confined space may be a prison, a closed society in which lives are controlled scrupulously and basic freedoms are denied, an unhappy marriage, a joyless but necessary job, or perhaps a seemingly insurmountable medical condition. How people choose to react mentally will often define how they will proceed in each of these situations.

As a result, a confined space does not mean that we need to limit our own mental space. There are many stories of heroic patience and persistence that have led people to overcome immense suffering. For example, it was that mental space that was left untouched by Nelson Mandela's oppressors, and he held onto it for decades in his obscure prison cell. It is that hope from which the Dalai Lama gains sustenance in his daily struggle for freedom and independence. Such scenarios happen often on more mundane and smaller scales in our individual lives.

But it is not only space that can be defined in such a dichotomous way; the same view can be applied to time as well. Time, in fact, can be differentiated along the lines of perceived and measured time. Generally speaking, time functions as a measure, as a way of keeping track. Whether time exists on its own, independently as an entity, is highly debatable. Some physicists (like Julian Barbour) claim that time is an illusion, while others (like Lee Smolin) believe it to be real (whatever that means). Nonetheless, as an instrument to measure existence, it is very useful, to say the least.

Hence, time limits or brackets our existence. We have awareness that time is passing in seconds, years, lifetimes. It never stops. We never get younger. We never move back in time. It counts down up to our very end, but even after our death, it keeps ticking. We all agree to set our clocks, the same way we arrange Daylight Savings Time. We all know how long a minute or a year feels to us.

Yet we may also perceive time differently. When we are in a state of boredom, time seems to slow down. It is that endless meeting or the day at work or the queue at the cashier that seems to never end. However, seen in terms of time, it may only be a matter of minutes. But when we enjoy ourselves, time flies, we say. Hours, or even days may pass by as quickly as the wind. Our perception of time may influence or color our reaction to it. Our lives may be seen as an endless stream of pointless moments or as a fleeting moment of bliss.

But no matter how we may perceive time, it will tick away regardless. It is strange how when we are in the moment, we feel it lasts a long time, but when we suddenly look back, twenty or thirty years have passed, and it felt like yesterday when we were young. Whether we are consciously counting or not, time will always flow.

So indeed, we are existing as prisoners of time and space. There may be a time (!) when we are freed of our (physical) constraints in an afterlife, but for now we have to deal with our own limitations. The same way we cannot physically fly, we cannot outlive our own lives since they must come to an end eventually. That end may be another beginning. 

In the meantime, we may not be able to stop time or the sun from rising, but we can make good use of it and gather the rosebuds while we may, as Herricks poem “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time” fittingly summarizes our condition. Nonetheless, as long as we use our imagination and creativity, neither time nor space is going to limit us.

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