High up in the North in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is a hundred miles high and a hundred miles wide. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak.
When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by.Hendrik Willem Van Loon, The Story of Mankind
It was Friday when the year 1020 began. 1020 was the year when King Canute the Great of Denmark, England and Norway would codify the laws of England. That first day of January, on a Friday, our little Svithjod bird visited the rock for the first time. It would sharpen its beak and erode a tiny fraction. But it wasn’t until the beginning of 2020 that the little bird returned to our rock for the first time in 1000 years. It was a Wednesday in case you were wondering. Eternity is one of those surreal concepts of time that is hard to grasp and best explored through storytelling.
Surreal Concepts of Time
We’ve all experienced time slipping through our fingers or slowing down depending on what we do. Somehow both can feel like an eternity. I think nowhere are these concepts better explored than in Christopher Nolan’s films Interstellar (2014) and Inception (2010). [SPOILER AHEAD] We’re going to look at what both teach us about our subjective concepts of time before attempting to reconcile with the idea of perpetuity. How can we harness eternity for our own benefit?
1. When Time Is Slipping Through Our Fingers
What I found is that time becomes much easier to grasp when we see it in relation to the things and people we love or care about. Few fictions illustrate this idea better than Interstellar.
In the future, earth has become uninhabitable, and humanity’s only hope is to escape to another planet. Scientists are sent on interstellar missions to scout potential new homeworlds. Nolan’s masterpiece is a film not only about black holes, gravity and the relativity of time but also about love.
Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.Dr Amelia Brand
As former NASA pilot Joseph Cooper, Dr Amelia Brand, Dr Romilly and Dr Doyle approach one of the potential new home planets, they’re faced with a surreal decision: Explore the planet for a few hours and lose decades for the people on earth or move on to another world even farther away.
The planet in question is close to Gargantua, a black hole with a gravitational pull so powerful that it slows downtime. In other words, each hour they spend on the planet would mean seven years on earth will have passed. In and of itself, this time dilation wouldn‘t matter to our astronauts. If it weren’t for the loved ones back on earth, they were trying to be safe. Cooper, for instance, left behind his teenage daughter and son. The only way they can communicate is through short video messages transmitted through space.
Brand, Cooper and Doyle decide to land on the surface while Romilly stays on the mothership, away from the gravitational pull. The viewer follows the events through the eyes of Cooper. Tragically, the planet turns out to be inadequate. When Brand and Cooper return after a few hours (unfortunately, Doyle didn‘t make it), more than 23 years have passed for Romilly and the people on earth; the ‘real world’ if you will.
One of the film’s most captivating moments shows Romilly welcoming back the others. He has visibly aged and seems scarred by loneliness. This feeling intensifies when we see our protagonist catching up on his video messages. As he watches them one by one, Cooper realises he missed out on almost a third of his kids’ lives. They’ve grown up and are now his own age. His son married, and became a dad, but lost his first child Jesse to an illness.
The short time Cooper spent on the planet feels like an eternity as soon as it’s put in perspective to his loved ones. Unspoken regrets about the past lie in the air. With the new planet being uninhabitable, the future looks equally bleak.
I suspect the number of filmgoers who have regrets about their lives because they came too close to a black hole is probably zero. Yet, this theme undoubtedly resonates with the audience. As far as I can tell this is because Nolan metaphorically explores one of the concepts of time we’re all too familiar with. Sometimes, looking back at our lives, time feels to have slipped through our fingers. We feel regret because there is something or someone we haven‘t appreciated as much as we should have.
We don‘t even need a gravitational pull to feel this way.
2. When Time Slows Down
A few years before Interstellar, Nolan explored this theme from a different angle. His mind-bending movie Inception has a different premise, yet achieves a similar effect. It’s not set in the vastness of space, but in the vast confines of our own minds.
The writer and director introduce the fictional idea of dream-sharing, a technique that allows people like Dom Cobb to infiltrate another person’s mind, steal their secrets or even plant new ideas, i.e. inception. In the film, the participants are sedated and share a dream world with somebody else. They might not even know they’re dreaming. Morbidly enough, they do wake up if they get killed while being under. Time feels different, too. Five minutes in the real world gives you one hour in the dream.
In a dream, your mind functions more quickly. Therefore, time seems to feel slower.Dom Cobb
As a bonus, time slows down even more if a person experiences a dream within a dream. As you can imagine, in such a world, losing yourself in the eternity of your sub-conscience is as easy as losing yourself in Nolan’s skilful logic.
That’s what happens with Cobb and his wife Mal who both end up spending 50 years literally building their dream world. In contrast to Cooper in Interstellar, our loved ones find themselves in a seemingly blissful situation. They’re able to spend an eternity together, savouring every moment while barely aging in the ‘real world’. Their dream is so deep that they lose track of what’s real. In their imaginary world, they grow old together.
However, Cobb senses that it’s all an illusion and can no longer bear the lie. Meanwhile, Mal has chosen to forget the truth. To escape the eternal dream, Cobb plants an idea in Mal’s head; that their world isn’t real. Tragically, this thought prevails even after they wake up by suicide. Mal ends up killing herself in the real world.
Even though the concepts of time are different, both Nolan films share a common theme. While Cooper regrets having missed out on the lives of his children, Cobb regrets his fatal attempts to mess with the sub-conscience and to outsmart reality. Due to the well-intentioned decisions they make, both end up in the same place: filled with regret about the past and worries about the future.
Again, the audience can relate. Because Inception effectively deals with an extreme form of living in your own head. In a short period of time, your mind cannot only simulate experiences but whole lives. The deeper we’re immersed in our own stream of consciousness, the more real and eternal they feel. As much as we can use this ability to our advantage, losing ourselves in our imagination can be fatal. Our fake world may be perfect, but sooner or later reality will catch up.
3. Harnessing Eternity
Now, what if we were able to reconcile our mind’s subjective perception of time with reality? What if we could use both to our advantage? The key to it lies in a period of time we haven’t explored much yet: the present.
Tomorrow never comes.Proverb
Despite my efforts to teach students the use of past and future tenses, it’s worth considering from time to time there might not even be such a thing as the future. Because that future will in fact take place in the present. In Zen, it’s one of the concepts of time known as the eternal now.
The eternal now is quite the opposite of our ontological story from the beginning, The Now forever moves through time and space and we’re bound to move along. Suddenly, eternity is not some distant abstract point thousands of years from now. It can be experienced the very moment you finish this sentence. As such, we don’t have to worry about it. We cannot lose it, it cannot be taken away from us. When every moment feels like an eternity, we don’t have time for regret.
Obviously, this surreal sensation of time is not easily achieved. If it were, I doubt that Nolan’s films would’ve ever seen the light of day. One way of experiencing it, though, is to get in a perpetual meditative state.
Meditation is one method, of course, a conscious effort not to think while being perfectly aware of your surroundings. With practice, it’s possible to be so consciously lost in the moment that each one feels like an eternity. Even though our activity is limited to only sitting, achieving this meditative state is challenging.
Indeed it becomes infinitely more challenging in everyday life. Many activities and experiences are intertwined or follow each other closely. The key, however, lies in focusing on whatever activity is right in front of us, treating each of them as one we care about. If you live life one activity at a time, whether it’s doing the dishes or spending time with people you care about, there’s hardly any room for worries or regrets. Instead of fast-forwarding your life, waiting for the upcoming vacation, or the next quarter-mile race, there is only the steady pace of the eternal now.
Our subjective concepts of time are as fascinating as they are bewildering. A few years back, one of my best friends died unexpectedly in his early thirties. It was heartbreaking. But even though we had rarely seen each other the years before he passed away, I had no regrets. On the contrary, thinking about him still brings a smile to my face. It took me years to figure out why.
My friend was a mindful guy. He was also a teacher and weeks before his death, I paid him a visit. We taught his English class together, caught up on old stories and went for more than a few drinks. I don’t remember being absent-minded or otherwise detached from reality during that time.
But I do remember being unusually conscious right until the moment I said goodbye and shook his hand. I don’t know how and why I had this feeling I would never see him again. But I do know that being in the moment made all the difference in the end. By the way, the Svithjod bird will return in 3020. On a Saturday. But who cares, really?