Last night on the way out of a networking event, I was walking along with an associate toward our cars. We both looked up at the night sky. I remarked that the big planet in the western sky might be Jupiter, and the constellation to the south and west was Orion.
“Have you ever seen Jupiter through a telescope?” I asked. “You can see its moons. That freaks me out. The idea that there’s a planet out there with other moons around it boggles my mind.”
That’s when my friend said: “You know, NASA is recruiting people for missions on which they’ll never come back.”
Would you do that? Would you climb on a spaceship, fly out of earth’s gravity and venture into space knowing that you’d never return to earth again?
It’s a question you probably have not considered except in strange little rock songs like Major Tom by David Bowie or Rocketman by Elton John. The idea of being shot off into space without hope of further human contact is a bit terrifying.
Then there’s this whole concept of eternity to consider. As scientists wrestle with the physics of how matter came into being, and how to describe the world as it is, not just as we imagine it, there is greater appreciation and greater uncertainty about what it is we really see around us.
I heard a discussion on the radio about the likelihood of life on other planets. We know there are great odds that there are other planets like earth positioned in galaxies likes ours where conditions for life as we know it may well exist. But there’s one problem. As the scientist describing these galaxies pointed out, there are something like 200 billion possible galaxies like that. All with billions of stars and billions of planets circling them.
Because there’s this thing called eternity. And it goes on forever. And ever. And ever.
Those of us who run and ride understand a few things about time and space. It’s not uncommon to hear people brag or complain about how far they just ran or cycled during a workout. “I felt like that run took an eternity,” you might hear someone say.
An eternity. That means time with no beginning and no end. The human mind can’t do it. Can’t conceive how that’s possible. That’s why people throw God into the equation. It helps explain to the human mind that time had a beginning, and that it might also have an end.
Comedian Louis C.K. describes the day his young daughter asked if the sun would ever go out. Before he knew what he was doing he described the process by which suns expand to massive burning orbs and then shrink and die. to his own horror he saw his daughter’s eyes grow wide as she started to cry. “No, it’s not going to happen for a very long time,” he tried to assure her. But in her mind everyone she knew was going to die. There was no way for her to conceive it any other way.
Even adults can feel like their world is coming to an end when something happens in their life that makes them wish it could somehow be different. A bad race is sometimes enough to make those of us who run and ride wish we could go back in time and start all over again. Living with the results of a bad effort makes it feel like time has slowed down just to torture you. “God, I wish I could just die…” we tell ourselves. Not seriously of course. But in jest we say such things to help process the emotional pain that comes with disappointment or loss.
During college I took a course called Philosophy of Existentialism. One of the concepts we studied was the “irreversibility of time.” That’s right buddy. You can’t go backward. So you’re stuck with the consequences of your actions no matter what. That’s a depressing thought to many. Which is why so many people think existentialists are full of shit.
But those of us who run and ride live in intimate relationship with the irreversibility of time. And as I ran through the dark Iowa hills in the deep of winter, I could literally feel time passing me by. And I thought anew about the nature of eternity. And about God And our temporal existence. Rather than make me more of a skeptic about spirituality, existentialism stripped bare the material flatness of our being and exposed the rich emotional world of love, cosmic reality and hope.
Jean Paul Sartre created the play No Exit that proposes the idea that “hell is other people.” The play focuses on three people in a small room for eternity. And at some point at least one of the people in the room is disliked by the other two. It’s a critical, cynical view of human existence. Yet it’s pretty true as well. I could even hear Jesus saying that phrase: “Hell is other people.” It’s the flipside of the statement that the kingdom of God can be found here on earth.
It’s always stuck me that there are people that almost immediately offend your sensibilities when you meet them. You try like hell to be gracious but your mind gravitates to that ugly emotional pattern where you instantly hate their guts. You can’t even explain it.
Perhaps there is some evolutionary function to such emotions. When you think about your rivals in endurance sports, the people you like to beat the most, there is often some aspect of their character that makes you want to beat them badly.
Why in all eternity do such emotions exist? Because the nature of the universe is that nature is not benign. It is a reflection of the competitive reality in which we all live. So our sporting endeavors are manifestations of truths that exist both in visible reality and in time out of mind. Competition is the dark matter of our brains. We know it’s there and control it to get along with others at work or in family dynamics. But deep down we’re aching to break out of this reality we’re forced to accept. We’re running and riding from here to eternity. We’re seeking to deny that there is a beginning and end to everything.
Or that there is not. That is our even greater fear. Eternity makes us feel like we are insignificant. That we really don’t matter in the scheme of things. That’s what our obsession with God and heaven is all about. We want to matter to someone. Whether that is true or not is a debate for the ages.
So we’re stuck as well with the seemingly competitive realities of religion and science. Some people flatly refuse to try to reconcile the two. Their religion is so important to them that they prefer to deny evolution over acknowledging that Christ and the Bible make liberal use of organic symbolism to describe spiritual principles. Jesus was a naturalist, you see. He would gladly have taken the knowledge of evolution and turned it into parables for how we’re supposed to understand the universe at an emotional, spiritual level. That’s not hard to imagine if you open your mind to realize that nearly every parable Jesus used to teach all who would listen that the eternity of God’s kingdom can be understood best through natural examples of how things work. The mustard seed. Yeast in the dough. That’s how the kingdom of God grows. And evolves.
So it pains me to watch how people struggle with the simple, existential truths of how the world works. It’s all within our grasp if we don’t draw lines in the sand and say, “That’s my worldview. I’m finished.” But that’s insane.
Moving along in our individual passages through eternity is not a race. We’re generally in no hurry to finish off our lives. Some people can’t seem to wait to die and get into heaven. But they’re also generally the people most prone to condemn others to hell. Which proves the existentialist’s point: being forced to live with that sort of person really is a brand of hell.
I’ll freely admit that eternity has always freaked me out. It should freak you out too. Beyond our rich yet meager little planet lie cosmic systems so vast we can’t possibly know if we’re the only form of conscious life in all eternity. But as I’ve often quoted from the book The Ambiguous Adventure by Cheik Hamidou Kane, “the purity of the moment is made from the absence of time.”
That means that time expands when you’re doing something you love. Indeed, that’s what happens when we run or ride or swim. We’re living fully in the moment and also communing with eternity. It’s a humbling little adventure for sure. But it really matters. It really does.