Recently, I’ve become obsessed with the concept of infinity. I’ve struggled to wrap my brain around the idea of an end to time and space. It’s easy enough to understand finite ends when viewed through the prism of our lifetime on Earth. The stopwatch starts when the umbilical cord gets cut. The stopwatch ends when the box gets lowered into the dirt. In the intervening 70+ years we blow past the borders of our towns, our states, and our countries. Some lucky and adventurous people even blow past the common boundaries, celebrating hundredth birthdays or landing on the moon.
But even those outliers can only outlie so far.
So much of our framework is based subjectively and, quite possibly, necessarily, around our human limitations. However, it is possible to consider existence itself in non-human terms. We must ask ourselves what is to be gained, what is to be lost, what is to be changed.
And here’s where I get obsessed with the idea of infinity.
Looking to the future, I am unable to see an end. I can see tomorrow. It’s not hard for me to imagine a year from now. It’s not even difficult for me to picture Earth without me some day. I can even come up with ideas of how technology might change the realities of day-to-day life in a century or two centuries or even a millennium from now. Sure, my mind might be blown by the truth, much like one could expect Magellan to reel at the thought of a plane, using sophisticated radar, moving from one continent to another, but I, with time, would be able to understand the possibilities and limitations without understanding the how in the same way that I understand a car or the internet.
The thing is, even on the far side of what I just said, there’s a thousand years. One thousand. A thousand years ago it was 1016. And 1016 was essentially a middle between today and the beginning of Christianity. It was also fifteen hundred years after Socrates was born (470 BC). Of course, Socrates’ birth came twenty two hundred years after construction started on the Pyramids of Giza (2630 BC).
Before you go on. Stop. Put all of this in perspective relative to our lives. Say it out loud if you must. Write it down on paper.
If you’re anything like me, you gather things like the Greeks and the Pyramids and the Roman Colosseum and you say, “that all happened a long time ago.” But it’s up to us to understand that the distance between those markers is significant. We are closer to the time of Christ than those who built the Pyramids. We are almost equidistant from Socrates as Socrates was to the construction of the Pyramids.
If those details blend into history with ease and without distinction, what then of the ordinary lives lived during the same periods? How many events, accomplishments, geniuses, and scoundrels have flared bright, like a match, captivating the moment, only to turn into smoke only to disappear entirely into the breeze? How many people have toiled day in and day out in the pursuit of purpose and legacy, who are anonymous to us all now?
Now here’s another data point to add to our collection.
As we exist today in 2016, we are, give or take a few centuries, 4500 years removed from the construction of the Pyramids. A long time, right? Well, not so fast.
The oldest Homo Sapiens fossils we’ve got on record—and here it is important that I am talking about humans, and not any of our closely related ancestors—are 150,000 years old. With that in mind, the arc of time between punching in at McDonalds and hauling stones for the Pyramid becomes almost insignificant. But if you want even more context, Homo Sapiens is a recent newcomer compared to our older ancestors. The famous “Lucy” fossils are dated at 3.2 million years old.
If you’re like me, you see 3.2 and say, “Okay, so they’re three million years old.” The problem with that, is in the rounding we do for simplicity’s sake, we throw away two hundred thousand years. And those two hundred thousand years are the same length of time between those of us in 2016 and the oldest Homo Sapiens fossils on record.
Consider this – the oldest fossils we know about on Earth are cyanobacteria from Archaean rocks of Australia. They’re dated at 3.5 billion years. The planet itself is dated at about 4 billion years old.
And now the distance between Lucy and Lucille Ball seems rather insignificant.
It’s also not hard to understand then that our lives here are not a snap of the fingers, or even the thought of a snap of fingers. We are almost incalculably small blips on the radar of recorded time. And recorded time in that instance is meant to be understood as starting with today and going backwards (and we could keep going back further than I did). It says nothing of the time going forward. As small as our 70+ years feels in light of what we’ve just discussed, now keep in mind that time will go on tomorrow and the next day and…forever.
There may be nobody around to record the ticking of the clock. The planet may crumble into dust and scatter itself into the universal breeze (that distance also goes on forever), but time will continue to march.
I’m turning forty today.
Which is to say, the human being on Earth, named Ben LeRoy, having been born on Monday, February 16, 1976 in Madison, WI has circled the sun forty times. This is how we measure time in this realm—circling of the sun broken down into years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds. Other planets in our solar system take less time. Others take longer. Outside of our solar system some things don’t orbit anything.
How will they know when they are getting old?
This obsession with infinity has played tricks on my brain. Has made me ask questions I was too busy to ask, too full of 70+ year old human life hubris to consider. The partial and sometimes haphazard conclusions I’ve drawn are sometimes euphoric and other times entirely terrifying. I’ve made a deal with myself to sit through their considerations no matter how much they knock me off balance. The quest becomes one of not confirming what I think I know, but of trying to catalog what I know for sure I don’t know.
As it turns out, I don’t know much of anything.
Twenty years ago when I first discovered Salinger for the second time (I was not a fan of Catcher in the Rye, and only came to really appreciate the guy’s work when I read Franny & Zooey) I read his short story, “Teddy.” There’s a peculiar passage in “Teddy” that caught my interest at the time, but that ultimately ended up feeling like a literary parlor trick—a neat thing until you dug a little more and realized it was only words—but lately I’ve been struck by similar concepts and I feel like I get it more now than I ever did before.
The titular character—Teddy—is a precocious boy (like, scientifically studied and moderately famous precocious) on board a cruise ship and there happen to be a bunch of doctors and psychologists also on board and one particular guy wants to pick at Teddy’s brain a little bit and he asks Teddy if he was in charge of teaching children, what would he teach them? And Teddy responds (at this point I’m going to use a brief snippet from the story, which, I know, was greatly frowned upon by Mr. Salinger, but that in his current state and in the spirit of solidarity, I hope he understands)—
“I think I’d first just assemble all the children together and show them how to meditate. I’d try to show them how to find out who they are, not just what their names are and things like that…I guess, even before that, I’d get them to empty out everything their parents and everybody ever told them. I mean even if their parents just told them an elephant’s big, I’d make them empty that out. An elephant’s only big when it’s next to something else—a dog or a lady for example.”
Either what Teddy is saying makes sense or it doesn’t. A common response would be—“Yes, but we need to identify and label things so as to distinguish them from other things.” And I guess that’s true as far as how to navigate a 21st Century world with reduced confusion. That is certainly a practical consideration that I cannot discount. If one chooses to exist in the world as we know it, one must accept a baseline set of terms to be semi-functional.
But what if we isolate ourselves from polite society and make a concerted effort to hang out with ourselves in the pursuit of Teddy’s understanding. What if we start with the most basic question.
Who am I?
Suddenly, “Publisher” or “novice rock climber” or “American” or “son” or “brother” or “friend” or even “human” itself seem like such temporary and insignificant details as to be wholly absurd. As mentioned above, those labels gives some context that helps navigating this world, but if I am trying to understand the bigger puzzle, it’s worthless clutter. If I cling to these things, I am a hoarder of descriptions. And hoarding, as we know, is not healthy.
So what am I?
I am energy manifested. My whole is made up of smaller quantities of energy. Those smaller quantities are themselves made up of smaller quantities, and so it goes on. It’s easy enough to understand this in terms of chemistry, as something we could check if only the microscope could keep magnifying as long as we need it to.
Our greatest handicap in experiencing everything is our inability to perceive outside our limitations. We can only see so much even with the aid of machines. We can only taste and smell and hear based on the operating equipment we’ve got built into our human machinery. But—and this is one of the important things I’ve come to realize—our inability to perceive something does not make it less real. And what is floating around in the vastness of time and space that is but is not perceived is so immense as to make me unreservedly joyous and painfully terrified, sometimes at that same instant.
We are infinite. There are seven billion people on the planet and each one of them is infinite.
We are made up of energy. The energy that makes up Ben LeRoy, age 40, Madison, WI, Publisher is what is writing this. That energy came together, is constantly coming together, from earlier times and when I “die” it will reconstitute and become something else. It’s hard to look at that because time is a hard concept to grasp and there’s a certain vanity ascribed to our current position as living human with access to social media that we—some more than others—are reluctant to give up.
We die. We are buried. The casket and our body erodes, mixes with dirt. The dirt becomes trees. The trees become branches and leaves. The leaves become carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide floats into space. We become rain. We become oceans. We feel the pull of the moon, but we are the moon. We become stars. Stars blow up. We become light. This is an incredibly long transformation by our current perspective and standards, but there is logic in its machinery.
And if no one part of the infinite parts that makes up me is more important than the others, that they are equi-critical, then it stands to reason that the essence of me will blow up and scatter to the wind and will end up being an infinite amount of other things—some of which I have no words for or concepts of. And if that’s the case, that my infinite will work its way into already existing systems to make up other things, then doesn’t it stand to reason that your infinite will be there, too? And if that’s the case, and if that’s been the case forever in both directions (past and future), then how hard is it to understand that we really are all connected? That we are all one? That, as Bill Hicks said—we are all god, experiencing ourselves subjectively?
I don’t know what it means exactly, but I no longer have the same connection to the face in the mirror that I once did. I see it and recognize it, but also understand that I am separate of it. That it does not represent me. It is only an elaborate costume to help me understand my place in contemporary society, and for others to understand me in the same.
It was unsettling the first few times I felt unmoored to the mirror. And I recognize that the very idea must sound absurd to some people. But in my own way, I consider it a victory, a necessary step in my reframing of why we’re here and what it means to exist.
And so I opened the basement door by increment, and when no monster emerged from the dark to kill me, I opened it a little further.
I’ve long been a fan of adventuring. That’s commonly understood, in most circles, to mean something like “exploring nature outside” and it conjures up images of hiking trails and rivers and close calls in unpredictable situations. But lately I’ve come to understand that there are inward adventures to go on, and unlike the outside world, there aren’t topographical maps and compasses for our benefit.
It’s a challenge and an inexact science. I’ve been trying different methods like sensory deprivation tanks, Reiki healing, and being more mindful of my dreams. Most nights I sleep zipped up in a sleeping bag, wearing headphones, listening to binaural soundwaves trying to stimulate different parts of my brain. Sometimes I see nothing, have no noteworthy experiences.
But other times I have very vivid and extended hallucinations, most of them without context, many of them based on versions of infinity (how I got started on this fascination). The infinity manifests in multiple ways, often involves floating in space.
During these experiences, my brain often splits into two distinct “parts” for lack of a better term. There is a dreaming, hallucinating, perceiving part that I would most closely associate with sleeping, and then another part of my brain that is actively cataloging the variety of seemingly random people, places, and phrases that pop into my head. The trick is in allowing them to both operate without disturbing each other. When I can do this, I feel not unlike some great explorer of yesteryear hiking through and charting the adventure. How many things were first seen without any idea of what they were or how they fit into the larger scheme of everything? And what have we learned from them? What history do they tell? What things do they heal? What length should we go to keep them from extinction?
I don’t think it’s right to say that this inner exploration is key to my survival, because I don’t even know what that means. Survival of what, exactly? This human form? I’ve already acknowledged it’s, at best, a costume for convenience’s sake, more likely an illusion altogether.
I think the exploration inward holds the key to understanding things that are in us, but lost. Perceivable under the right conditions, but without any guide for translation. It is incumbent upon us to make use of un/under developed modes of perception that fall outside the spectrum of our sight and hearing. It is on us to perceive the things that have always been present, but that we’ve been unable to explain, in some cases, because we have been unwilling to perceive them.
And when we do it may very well render this illusory world of 9-5 jobs, reality television, 70 year lives so short in scope as to be a tiny grain on the scale of time between today and the construction of Great Pyramids of Giza, maybe even our oldest Homo Sapien ancestors, which is to say that relatively speaking something happened along the way, but that it is merely an asterisk in our shared history. As non-noteworthy as my turning 40.
I don’t mean to say this world is meaningless—it is clear to me that we are here for a purpose. I aim to understand that purpose. I aim to engage more fully in the quest of figuring out why. I will not give into the immensity of questions or the feeling of fear and insignificance that may come with the answers. I will understand and appreciate the infinite qualities of space and time, even when the Gestalt Shift in understanding scares the hell out of me. I will operate under the assumption that no harm can come from loving all. I will understand that our separation is—in context of time and space—inconsequential and likely entirely illusory.
As a child forty seemed so far away. Now I know it wasn’t.
Neither was birth.
Neither was death.
Neither are you.
Neither am I.