Thinking about Forever

And all the Things that Happen There

Even as a young child, my waking hours were filled with daydreaming about the most abstract and unsettling ideas. Notorious among them was something I could only set to rest by ignoring: the dreadful concept of forever.

I quickly became acquainted with the idea of heaven. People sometimes expressed concerns about boredom in heaven, and others attempted to assuage the fears of these churchgoers, who were beleaguered by ideas of an everlasting hymn-sing followed by an everlasting sermon. [1] None of that bothered me. I was pretty sure God wasn’t going to put us through an eternity of something any more boring than my day-to-day life, which I found pretty interesting. What bothered me was the elephant in the room—the elephant of eternity.

It was not the idea of being somewhere forever that bothered me, but the idea of being forever. It took a while before I ran into others who shared my feelings on this matter, but every time I imagined myself living on into eternity, I felt the deepest, darkest dread. [2]

Ray Kurzweil, despite being crazy, understood this. In The Age of Spiritual Machines, he wrote:

“Death gives meaning to our lives. It gives importance and value to time. Time would become meaningless if there were too much of it.”

The atheists always seemed to have this problem licked. They all had a master plan: they were going to muck about in this interesting, unexplained life of theirs, have a lot of fun, experience things, and then they were going to die. [3] Nothing was going to happen after that, of course. It was a brilliant exit strategy—it was a hell of a lot more relaxing than, well, hell. Or heaven.

The problem with being an atheist is that you’re less likely to lie awake as a child thinking about eternity. Unless you grow up and decide that mucking about in life includes studying mathematics or science, you might never spend much time thinking about forever. But you should, because forever is real.

People don’t naturally take to the idea of infinity. I recall taking grade 12 calculus and watching a friend of mine argue with the teacher about asymptotes. They couldn’t go on forever, he said. That didn’t make any sense.

“It must stop at some value!” he said adamantly. “It stops at some value plus or minus alpha, and we just don’t know what it is!”

The teacher’s expression was priceless. She was pretty young, and I believe it was her first year teaching. She hadn’t been trained to deal with people who had personal issues with asymptotes.

At the end of the day, you can close your calculus textbook and forget about asymptotes, but you can’t wipe away the truth. There will always be something. Something is forever. The book is missing at least one of its covers, and even if the rising action reaches its climax, the dénouement is eternal.

Even if we imagine the space-time continuum blown up like a balloon and taped to the ceiling; even if we are able to abstract our way out of the human experience of time, we only deepen the sense of permanence. There it is. There’s time, space, and all the places inside. Is there nowhere else to go?

I would not draw more comfort from a death that puts an end to my existence. It might seem that I’m trapped in a paradox of inevitable trepidation, but I’m not. If I believed that death were the end of my very existence, it would threaten the meaning and value of the time that I have now. The possibility of eternity threatens only the meaning of time in a hypothetical existence—a hypothetical existence of which nothing is certain.

As a human being, I can’t rid myself of the fear that accompanies these ideas, but I can ignore it. I do not believe that they correspond to an eventuality that will ever be realized, or that ought to be feared. That’s why I leave them at home nowadays. I try not to take them elsewhere, even while abstracting.

—————————————————————————————————————————————

[1] Standing on a stage at a music festival in front of thousands of cheering young Christians, I once heard a speaker say: “Hey, if you find worship boring, man, you’re gonna be bored in heaven… because that’s all heaven is—one honkin’ long worship service!”

A chunk of the crowd did go “Woo!” or something to that effect, but for the most part I think he succeeded only in infecting a bunch of impressionable kids with eternophobia.

[2] In the fall, I recounted this to a group while walking downtown. Jehan Watson was there.

“You must have hated Amazing Grace,” he said. “We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.” He laughed as he put special emphasis on “first begun.”

The next day we attended a funeral. Amazing Grace was sung. I looked at Jehan. He looked at me.

[3] My choice of wording and tone here derives primarily from an article I came across in one of my Skeptical Inquirer reading sessions. The author has apparently posted it on her website as well.

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3 Responses to “Thinking about Forever”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    I found this entry, in and of itself, to be an attractive bit of writing, but I do have a note on footnote #1: your participial phrase indicates that you were the one on stage in front of thousands, given that it must modify the subject of that sentence.

    “There’s time, space, and all the places inside.”

    I would guess that there are in fact also places outside, and that is where God exists. When we transition to the next life, I expect we will outgrow our dependence on time and effectively break outside the box to join Him. And I’m now reminded of the mystery box puzzle in KotOR.

    I once made a remark to my highschool tutor (25 years my senior) that I found a certain large photograph of the darkened recesses of a cathedral frightening–if I stared at it only a little, I felt like I was being swallowed up. His response surprised me, because he said that it does us good to feel swallowed up sometimes, to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of something without apparent limit–and he used eternity as an example of this. I had never found the idea of eternity downright frightening before, but that made an impression on me. There is a certain deep humility that comes, I think, only with this kind of intimidation.

  2. Good point about the grammar. Having a hard time rephrasing it. Isn’t it just bad diction, though? Does it necessarily mean the wrong thing?

    In order that the number of words spent discussing grammar not exceed the number of words spent discussing the actual idea, I have written this sentence, which I will end by saying: neat.

  3. Stephanie Says:

    I believe bad diction refers to the rhythm/flow/wordiness/triteness of a sentence, not it’s technical functionality. Taken literally, it *does* communicate the wrong thing, though if a person reads it twice, the intended meaning comes clear enough. Try something along the lines of, “Standing on a stage in front of thousands of cheering young Christians, a speaker at a music festival I attended once said, etc.” This would be technically correct, though I would also call it bad diction.

    Or, “I once heard a speaker at a music festival say, as he was standing on the stage in front of thousands of cheering young Christians, etc.” Either way, notice that I moved “at a music festival” to distinguish that while both you and the speaker may have been at the festival, you were not both on the stage (which is something I just realized might have been throwing off your attempts at revision).

    I’m not even going to pretend that this comment has anything to do with the original idea.

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