“You must understand, young Hobbit, it takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish. And we never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.”
– Treebeard, The Two Towers
“There is no future. There is no past. Do you see? Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.”
– Doctor Manhattan, Watchmen
I am at a strange point in my life when I’m, arguably, not too young and not too old. Of course, a lot of people would say 33 is already too old given that the baby boomers already had settled lives at this age (marriage, kids, a snore of a job, and whatnot), but I beg to differ. Times have changed, and I–supposedly belonging to the much maligned millennial generation–am still a man collecting plastic playthings molded in the image of muscled men in colorful trunks and tights.
I call this particular juncture in my lifetime “strange” because, of late, I have been feeling strangely, keenly aware of how I am at once distant and near both the past and the future. Some recent events have doubtless triggered this weird mix of anxiety and wonder about the nature of time, the most impactful of which was the death of my sweet grandmother. Yesterday, I saw a sad picture of my father lighting a candle over her grave just newly adorned with bermuda grass, and I couldn’t help but think that this powerful woman bursting with life, energy, and the most entertaining brand of humor just maybe two or three years ago, is now cold and damp earth beneath my father’s feet. And as healthy as that man is, he’s looking old, too.
Someone had uploaded faded, yellowed pictures in a chat group showing me and my cousins, our parents, our uncles and aunts with my grandmother. Taken with those large, clunky cameras and printed on photo paper, the years have not been kind to these pictures, some of them with faces you could barely discern. One showed me as a malnourished teenager in a jacket five times my size, another my sister, who’s now living halfway around the world, as a suspicious, wild-haired baby, and yet another of my aunt looking like a summer girl plucked out of Instagram. We all look so different now and these snapshots of life supposedly happened such a long time ago–but did they? When digital photos became accessible, the vacation and holiday pictures we take suddenly took on a marvelous degree of permanence and perfection that completely set them apart from those stained, cracked pics in our family albums. Suddenly–in terms of quality and if you don’t mind the subjects who had totally changed in their appearance over the years–my first uploaded digital pic on Facebook back in 2008 looks like it could have been taken just last week.
But was 2008 such a long time ago? Phones were a little dumb back then but not as dumb as the Facebook Newsfeed these days. Beyonce wanted you to put a ring on it. Twilight was a plague us Potterheads tried to avoid ferociously, our fangs out and our claws bared. Somewhere along the way, I learned what a rewarding and goddamn stressful thing a relationship was. In truth, I don’t feel as if these events had been too long ago; sometimes, I feel that these could have been just five or six years ago, and one out of three girls would still shriek my ear wax off if I mention the name “Edward” or “Jacob” to them.
2008 doesn’t feel that long ago and, frankly, neither does 1998 to me. Celebrity Deathmatch was the most awesome thing in the world (hey, maybe it still is?). My Heart Will Go On went on forever in every radio station. There were Britney Spears and the Spice Girls and all the fibers in my being raged to an unpleasant stiffness whenever they were on MTV. And the President of the United States lost his office due to a job he blew (a blown job). Yes, we wore baggy clothes featuring anime characters that would have looked alien today, but all in all, these happenings still do not feel that far back into the past.
10 years, 20 years don’t feel that long ago to me, especially when I’m alone and retracing my life in the canvass of my condo’s cobwebbed ceiling.
You know what feels long? How about 12,000 years?
12,000 years is the supposed lifespan of an Ent, a tree-like being in J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I remember these creatures whenever I get to pondering the vast expanse of time. Treebeard, the oldest of the Ents, spoke and moved so frustratingly slow that the Hobbits got madly impatient with him. But could you really blame a creature who had lived thousands of years to give a flying squirrel’s posterior about a halfling’s extremely short-lived preoccupations?
Tolkien was clearly putting us in the Hobbits’ shoes and telling us that a lot of the matters we fuss over in our daily lives are only caused by our lifespan being too short or our expiration date being too soon. We need to do everything now because, honestly, we don’t have long to live and the clock is ticking. Some people are able to extend their stay much longer than expected but these folks are still quite rare. There are a handful of women (five to be exact as of this writing) who have lived past 110 years old, gaining them the flashy, heroic-sounding title, “supercentenarians” even though you can imagine there’s probably nothing “super” about how they feel. As unrepresentative as I am of my cohorts, I would admit that at 33, there are already some mornings I feel so heavy that I wish I were made of metal and a huge magnet could pull me up from my bed, drag me, and drop my limp body into my office chair. Everything–tasks and leisure alike–is becoming so tiresome I’m beginning to think that a couple more years and I’d be ready to say, “Screw it, I’ve seen everything, where’s the exit?”
Still, some days I think to myself, “Wouldn’t it be exciting to live long enough to be here when man first sets foot on Mars?” But then if this space faring milestone only happens after 40 years had passed–would I still care, stuck in my wheelchair, unable to see through my three-inch cataracts, with the least bit of excitement a fatal threat to push my blood pressure over the edge? Maybe it’s not worth it. Hell, perhaps it’s best to check out just before sex turns into an appalling affair.
Thankfully, 40 years is still some ways off into the future. The way I personally think of it is that to get there–that unpleasant 73 year mark when everything’s painful, evil, dark, and cursed, including smiling children–I would have to go through the length of my entire life up to this point again and then some. I would have to suck on my mother’s breasts again (my earliest memories), watch all my favorite morning cartoons again like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Denver the Last Dinosaur (kidding, I hated that wimp Denver), play around the flag pole of my elementary school again as my mother accompanied my sister to school, kick ass in elementary by being a teacher’s pet and receive my fair share of bullying, have to get circumcised again and be in utter shock of my poor, murdered genitals begging for help in a pool of blood, fool around high school and discover the gift of masturbation, be torn between wooing crushes and playing Counter-Strike, graduate, get really serious in college and fill my head with some dead German and French philosophers’ mind farts, hate Capitalism, discover I was in fact a dork and nothing like Batman or Wolverine or Raphael (my favorite sai-wielding ninjutsu-adept turtle), lose almost all confidence in myself and attempt to extricate myself from society, somehow get into a relationship and regain a sense of belonging, love Capitalism then witness more than five retrenchments as a transcriptionist, then a writer, then a social media marketing expert or whatever they want to call that profession, which only became possible because a guy named Mark Zuckerberg was even more of a dork than I was a few years ago, see all my friends go to leave for other jobs before finally being here at this moment in time, a little comfortable with my work, with the most amazing girlfriend in the world whom I hope to marry, but struggling with accelerated hair loss.
That would be quite a long time to relive.
But maybe still not that long.
After all, 33 years is really just a millisecond of a millisecond of a millisecond of time.
Recently, I’ve been obsessing about dinosaurs, paleontology, history, and evolution as anybody who had an excess of time in front of a computer would… naturally. I have learned that if you compressed time into a 24-hour period, such that the Earth formed at midnight and that the present moment when I’m typing these words is the next midnight, modern humans would only have appeared at 11:59:59pm–that’s all of one second. And if you took that clock and recalibrated it to compress human history into another 24-hour period, only 14 minutes had passed since Christ was here, walking amongst people.
The universe is 14 billion years old, the Earth four and a half. It took three billion boring years for microbes to evolve into fish in a world filled with volcanic eruptions and rivers of fire. Animals have been here 600 million years but mammals themselves started scurrying as little, insignificant rodents 200 million years ago. The dinosaurs, the poster boys for extinction, were actually here much longer than us, ruling the planet for 165 million years compared to our measly 200,000! In fact, the dinos overstayed for so long that the Tyrannosaurus rex is nearer in time to Donald Trump than to the stegosaurus–you know that other popular dino with four legs, huge plates running along its spine, and spikes on its tail? I’ve scratched my head at this myself multiple times but it’s true. There are only 5,000 years of recorded human history and prior to that, human beings spent roughly 150,000 years being embarrassingly simple-minded like you during the first couple of seconds when you wake up in your bed, not knowing what the hell is going on.
Given the sheer immensity of this timeline, you can see how 33 years is truly puny verging on nothing.
I say “verging” because considering time is almost infinite, as short as 33 years is compared to a universe that has existed for billions of years, that period is still as valid as any duration of time; that is, 33 years is really as valid as, say, 33 million years. And that is the paradox of time, is it not? Moments that are short-lived might as well have run forever against the backdrop of infinity. You say I live in the present but I only see life as a series of past events stretching into yesterday, the last week, the last month, the last year, the last epoch. I can only grasp the present as a hand would try to hold grains of sand streaming down between its fingers. And how could a million years be longer than a second when there could be a million moments within it?
During deranged ruminations like this, I remember another character from pop culture: Doctor Manhattan of arguably the greatest graphic novel of all time, Watchmen. Dr. Jonathan Osterman was a nuclear physicist who was accidentally disintegrated by an Intrinsic Field Subtractor machine but was later able to reconstruct himself as Doctor Manhattan–a powerful being outside time and maybe space. This fictional character’s perception of time was even more bizarre than Treebeard’s because he viewed every event in the past, present, and future as all transpiring at the same time, creating all sorts of problems for other characters in the story who, like us, only saw time as a linear march of events: there is yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But Doctor Manhattan was a being that’s acutely conscious of his past, present, and future existence at each point in that linear timeline, and so he felt disconnected from virtually all the emotional struggles of humanity that arise from their belief that things only happen because of things that precede them (you only leave your boyfriend because he cheated). To illustrate, Doctor Manhattan knew he would cheat on his first girlfriend before he did it because he was already living that life in his future, and yet he still did it. It’s like you celebrating your 10th birthday party, the best, most fun and memorable birthday party of your life, knowing that you’re already spending your 60th birthday party alone in a nursing home, cursing existence. It’s such a dire situation to be in that Doctor Manhattan literally exiled himself to Mars.
But unfortunately, as much as backpacking to Mars is becoming more and more tempting each day considering our present plight and as the world blazes down the rabbit hole of eternal shittiness, there’s nothing much we can do but accept the paradoxes and ironies of time. I guess, if you think about it, there’s a cruel but poetic consolation in the fact that we are helpless and literally can’t do anything about the matter, which means nobody truly expects us to do anything substantial. Sure, you can buy some tubes of anti-aging cream, hang out with the young ones as what’s left of your liver smoulders into a boiling square inch of ash and bile, or play with your man toys like I do as you reminisce about the past–but really, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to turn back the hands of time or stop the seconds in their tracks. We can try to hold on to happiness, to sadness (some people consciously prefer it), to people and things as much as we want to but it’s all over before we think it; and in that–there’s sweet release, a responsibility to be wantonly irresponsible.
The message here is not to make the most out of life because “you only live once.” Chasing after something, which ultimately won’t matter or will matter but only in a certain cramped definition, so doggedly is a fool’s errand. Many have lost their minds and the people who truly care about them trying to recapture past glories that have long transformed into ghosts.
It’s more like this: let the inevitability of the rushing river of time wash over you, accept your fate, and be shredded majestically into strips of beautiful nothingness as the universe races to its end.