I wonder if you would join me in a thought experiment, a sort of waking dream. Why? Because in dreams we can do what we can’t do when we are awake.
Let’s imagine we can step outside of time and space. God-like, we will take hold of all of time and flatten it out and put it up on a wall. It will be a mural of everything that has ever happened.
The space in which everything happens needs to be included too, so let’s put the three dimensions of space up there with time. It’s impossible—sure—but that’s why we need a dream. Give me a metaphorical hand. There! Magically, we have done it. We have fixed all of time before us on one immense mural—the mural of Everything.
The picture before us is huge beyond belief and the prospect of seeing all of everything is daunting—even for gods like us. Far, far in the past we see the tiny universe, small as a peach. Then over distances great beyond description we see the forming of stars and galaxies, and finally, here and there, a supernova bursting as bright as an entire galaxy.
Then, still far back, is a green globe. Looking at it closely, we see tiny life forms, then nearer the present, furry animals. When we examine the globe even later along the wall we see creatures walking upright. They look a lot like us.
Much nearer the present we find the city of Rome. Then the Great Wall of China and over there The Temple of the Moon at Machu Picchu. At last we see cities and towns that look like our cities and towns.
When we try to see beyond these places to later times, our mural is blank. Perhaps even imagination and magic do not allow us to see beyond the present.
We feel lost as we gaze at the vast display of time and space before us. Perhaps we need an anchor. Let’s find something familiar. I’ll go first.
If I look at a spot very close to us, I can see a day where I am sitting at a keyboard typing—today. There is my empty coffee cup, and over there is a small bookshelf with my favorite books and a baseball glove for playing catch with my grandsons.
Not much earlier on the wall of time, I find last Sunday and see my wife and myself reading the Sunday paper in our living room. Now I back up a few years to where I see a customer chatting with me on the last day I worked before I retired.
Now it’s your turn? What are you doing on the wall of time? Do you see yourself in the present moment? How about a few days ago?
Looking just a little earlier on the wall—but many decades earlier in my life— I find myself on a frozen ice pond near my house. I am ice skating with dozens of other winter clad youngsters. There is a small building in the background. I probably have a few dimes in my pocket to go there for some hot cocoa.
Moving another decade earlier, I see two small boys in a sandbox, carefully building little houses with roads beside them. It is my brother and I. Our mother is calling us for supper. I wonder how long we will stretch our playtime before running to the house.
If you try, you can find many scenes on the mural where you are very young. I hope you can find as many magical moments as I can.
When I look a dozen years earlier, I see myself again. I am just a few months old. My mother is feeding me. The two year old brother I never knew is very ill in bed. He will not live another year.
A little later on the wall, I see the day my brother Al signed up for the marines. My mother is quietly crying in her bedroom. I don’t have to look very far back in time, on another continent, to see a battlefield where her brother Chris has been killed in World War II.
Not much later I see myself a small boy, standing in a small living room with a wood stove. I am looking at my grandmother who is lying motionless on her back in a casket.
I am sure you can see yourself at sad times too. I hope you find them serene and not painful.
When we look again near the present, we see people we don’t know. In a little restaurant across town. Three women are chatting and smiling over plates of pie and cups of coffee.
When we look back a few days, we see one of the three women at work in a big grocery store. She is wearing the same smile she wore while playing cards as she moves packages across a scanner.
When we look back many decades at the same part of town, we see rows of blueberry bushes. A sun tanned man is looking closely at them. Maybe he is checking the ripeness of the berries. When we look for the man nearer the present, we see him much older, sitting in his living room. There is a picture on the wall where he is standing with his wife and a number of grandchildren.
In another house in our town, we see a woman in tears, clutching a tiny child to her chest with one hand and a suitcase in the other. She is leaving through her front door as a man yells curses at her.
Now we cast our view to a place far from where we live and far from our time.
Over half a millennium back, on a different continent, a great battle is being fought with new weapons. The English are using longbows to kill the French. Just a hundred years earlier in this place, knights in armor were fighting one another. New weapons have made killing more efficient and economical than in the “Age of Chivalry.”
Much nearer the present in the same country but still a century before now, we see countless men injured and suffering in a battle trench during what is being called the Great War—the war that is to end all wars.
Not much later in time, our eyes are drawn to the nation of Japan. An explosion more immense than any in the past is destroying an entire city and taking tens of thousands of human lives. The city is Hiroshima.
When we look at another country in another time we see places where whole families have been slaughtered in war. When we step back from the wall and look at countries over the centuries, we see so many places stained with human blood that we could never count them.
But as we scan our wall, we also find inspiring occasions. We recognize many of them. Many centuries before the present, we see Michelangelo on his back, high in some scaffolding near a cathedral ceiling. He is painting a fingertip that touches another man’s hand.
Centuries later we see Antonio Stradivari in a small shop carefully trimming and shaping a piece of maple that he intends to be the neck of a violin. Centuries later the violin will be cherished by a concert violinist.
A few hundred years before the present, we see Thomas Jefferson penning the Declaration of Independence.
A century later we see Florence Nightingale in London presenting statistical papers indicating that deaths during the Crimean War were greatly reduced as a result of improved sanitation.
A half century later, we see a young Albert Einstein writing. He is completing what would be called the Special Theory of Relativity. It shows that time is not a fixed flow but is directly related to space and gravity.
When we scan the wall, thousands more of what we call historical moments appear to us. But we also see thousands of events that we would not call “history.” We see a family planting and cultivating a farm in America’s “Old West.” It is west of the established United States of America, but it is not old to the family, it is new.
A century later we see men working in a factory with machines powered by newly available energy from electric lines. In the street in front of the factory we see a gasoline powered automobile driven by an enthusiastic driver.
On another continent, we see dark skinned people hunting for food. When we look at a later place in time we see their descendants lined up at voting polls.
Several decades before the present we see a few people typing on keyboards in front of cathode screens that instantly display their typed words. They are excited to be some of the first people to own personal computers.
Looking to a different continent in a different time, we see a newborn baby in Siberia, wrapped in furs and held by a smiling mother. When we scan the mural for more smiling mothers, we see tens of thousands—no, we see many millions of mothers cradling babies.
In our own time we see a schoolroom where excited children answer questions for their teacher. Looking more widely, we see countless schoolrooms, many with energetic talkative children and many others with teachers shouting to keep order.
We see colleges and universities scattered over the earth. When we look closely at one, we see graduating students throwing their mortar boards into the air in celebration.
In a house we see a family gathered for dinner. The mother is remarking how pleasant it is for them to be together for an hour instead of scattered about, each with their separate duties and past-times.
When we pause our searching, we notice that, although the present is but a point in time, its area is vast. We can see that the earth has more people living on it than ever before. We wonder at the millions of dreams they have and the obstacles they face. How will they make sense of the complex lives ahead of them?
We sense that we cannot take in more. We step back from our wall and we see that in the great sweep of time, human life fills a very small space. It seems that we humans haven’t been here very long, and the reach of time after the present seems boundless. We wonder what intimate human stories and what great dramas will fill that empty space.
Our imagination has served us well, but now, we blink our eyes a few times and slowly let go of our vision of the wall of time. We notice ourselves and we sense how very real we are. We know that it is individual humans like us—counting in the millions and even billions—who built the human story this far and who will live and work and love in that unfilled place we call the future.