Looking at time

Greek mythology described three goddesses called the Moirae, or the Fates. They were responsible for the lifespan of each person. One of the fates spun the thread of life, the second measured the thread, and the third cut it. They decided how long a life would be and how it would end. People who feel helpless about their lives, who feel that everything is decided for them by outside forces, are still called “fatalistic.”

To spin and measure a life and determine its end, the Fates had to work outside the stream of time. They could see every life from beginning to end, being able to measure that life and cut it at the end. More recent writers have also imagined beings that could see human lives outside of time. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, describing beings from another planet who saw time the way we see space. When they looked at one of us, they saw our entire lifespan, from beginning to end. Vonnegut called himself a Free-thinker; he was not a Christian. He found comfort in the thought that every person lasts forever in the universe as a glowing thread that runs through time. That permanent life might exist entirely in the past, but Vonnegut proposed that the past life still exists from some points of view, making that person immortal in one sense of the word.

Vonnegut was not fatalistic, though, about that lifespan. The value of a permanent life, preserved as a thread through time, was found in the choices made by each individual during the duration of that thread of time. If we imagine someone—God, or the Fates, or beings from another planet—seeing our lives from outside of time, knowing what we will do before we do it because they can see it already done, that knowledge does not rob us of our freedom. We make choices, steering our lives through time. We are free, because knowledge of what we will choose is not power that forces us to choose what is already known by someone who exists outside of time.

To be “outside of time” is difficult, if not impossible, for us to imagine. We still think of beings outside of time of having their own timespan while observing our timespan. But, outside of time, before and after do not exist. All events are seen in one gaze or glance. Time, like space, exists insofar as it is measured. We measure a distance between two objects and define that space, whether it is as tiny as the space between an electron and a nucleus in an atom or as large as the observable universe from one end to the other. We measure emptiness or void in space, but we cannot measure the nothing that exists outside of space. Likewise, we measure time between two events, but we cannot measure time outside of events. No time existed before the “Big Bang,” or before God said, “Let there be light.” To ask what existed before the Big Bang or what God was doing before he began to create is nonsense; there is not empty or void time before time begins—there is only nothing.

But, if our lives are viewed from outside of time, the viewer can also see imaginary time. The viewer can see where we would have gone in our lives if we had made different choices. We see the road we traveled in the past; looking right and left, we glimpse other possibilities that we have not visited. The viewer outside of time sees the entire landscape, all the things that could have been in the past and present and future, things that were not and are not and never will be.

Fatalistic people deny that freedom. To them, only the road exists. They might blame God or the Fates for their journey; they might blame their inheritance (coded in their DNA) and the limitations of their situation in life, or the traumas that they endured in childhood. Fatalistic philosophers claim that we have no freedom. Clearly, we exist under many limitations. We must breathe to survive; we must eat and drink; we must rest and exercise. We can be only one place at any given time. We cannot levitate (although we can make machines that lift us into the air and that even fly us from place to place). The Fates, or God, or the laws of the universe place parameters around our existences; but they do not deny us all freedom. If we had no freedom, God would not make commandments telling us what to do and what not to do. If we had no freedom, governments would not make laws and punish people for breaking those laws.

Sometimes people claim to be helpless, unable to stop themselves from sinning or from breaking the government’s laws. They blame their DNA, their childhood, their environment. Their defenders say that people should not be punished for crime; they should be rehabilitated. Jail is for correction, not for revenge. The legal system recognizes a certain level of helplessness called insanity. The insane (according to legal judgment) are not in control and cannot be punished for their crimes. Still, for the protection of society and for their own protection, they must be restrained and kept from breaking more laws.

Debate continues about freedom and predestination. Some believers insist that, because God is Almighty, whatever happens is what God wanted to happen. People who refuse to believe in God are unbelievers because God made them that way. Others say that faith is a choice. God forces no one to believe; his Judgment is based upon the way individual people used their freedom, whether they used it to trust God and follow his plan, or used it to deny God and reject his plan. Yet other believers hold to a paradox called “election.” While people are free, they are unable to come to God under their own power. Without God’s help, they are dead in sin, enemies of God, incapable of coming to him. By his power, God brings the dead to life. He grants saving faith and gives individuals the power to obey his commands, starting with the commandment to believe his promises. Those who are made alive are free; they can remain alive, or they can choose death. But on Judgment Day, all the saved will credit God with their salvation, acknowledging that they could not be God’s people without his help. On Judgment Day, all the lost will accept the blame for their rejection of God. They chose their rebellion; they preferred death to life.

In other matters, though, people are free. The clothes we choose to wear are not predestined by God or by nature and nurture. The acts of kindness we perform or fail to perform—and the acts of cruelty and neglect we perform or choose not to perform—are all free choices we make as we travel our timestream. Sometimes we face big decisions; many other times, paths we might prefer are closed to us. Sometimes the little choices we make change more than we expected. We cannot see the future. We cannot even see the present with all its possibilities. We live in time and we move through time; the flow of time is one dimension of our lives. J.