If Time Were Not Linear, Where Would We Be? What Would We Do?

There’s a scene in The Flash where Tom Cavanaugh’s character tells Barry Allen’s friends that Barry’s superpower is not his speed, it’s his hope. “He’s full of hope,” he says, pointing out that Barry keeps trying to do the impossible because he’s full of hope that it will work out.

Isn’t that the damned truth?

The Girl and I went to watch Arrival tonight. (I’m home for the weekend on R&R.) The movie is about the personal reactions of a linguist — and the worldwide reactions of people — to the arrival of twelve alien spaceships. Amy Adams’ character, Louise Banks, is a linguist, so she is recruited by the military to try and communicate with the aliens.

Spoilers follow.

As the movie progresses, we learn that humans all over the planet are freaking out over the arrival of the aliens. A cult commits mass suicide, people riot over food supplies and guns, and the Alex Jones types — lunatics who want to watch the world burn — entice their listeners to try and do something against the aliens. Unfortunately, soldiers hear that message from the bellicose talk show and attempt to destroy the one alien ship that landed in Montana. As a result, other countries around the world get ready for a retaliatory strike from the aliens. Led by China and Russia, the humans are ready to start an interstellar war.

Because we could so totally take on aliens that can travel across the universe.

During this escalation in hostilities, Louise Banks tries to learn the language of the aliens in order to understand their intent. As it turns out, their language is not like our language. While we see sentences with a distinct sequence and different parts, the aliens’ sentences are circular. They see the sentence as one distinct unit with no beginning or end. Their spoken language is just as nonlinear.

That nonlinearity is because they experience time in a nonlinear way as well. They know what is going to happen and what has happened, and everything that will happen in between. As Louise gets to learn their language, she begins thinking like them, and she begins experiencing different parts of her life in a nonlinear way. That includes her knowing she will be a mother, who the father of her child will be, and that her child will die from a genetic condition.

This all helps Louise be key in stopping the hostilities by knowing how she does it and then doing it. She also learns that the man she’s been working with will be the father of her child, and that he will leave her when he finds out that she knew all along that their daughter would die. The movie ends with Louise telling her daughter that she chose to have her because of the good life they would have together before the girl died.

As these movies often do for The Girl and I, we got into a discussion about whether or not we would do things if we knew the outcome. “Isn’t that what hope and faith are all about?” I asked her. “It’s about not knowing, so we hope that we are getting it right… Right?”

The Girl agreed.

As I told you the other day, I play a mental game of chess when making decisions. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I can make a pretty good guess with this computer of a brain of mine. Some years ago, I told a friend that her boyfriend was going to propose soon, and he did. She asked me how I knew, and I told her that all the signs were there. In essence, the brain took all the input and came up with the most probable solution.

But what if I knew exactly what was going to happen? How would I make my decisions? Would I then have to have hope that the things I do will be the right ones? Would I have to have faith that things would work out? Let me tell you… It would be a miserable existence. As much as I don’t like knowing, I like not knowing. It gives life a certain flavor to not know.

Sure, it would be extremely convenient to know right away what the consequences of your actions will be. But it’s also good to not know. Otherwise, I think life would be extremely boring… Almost as boring as all the people who play it safe and avoid trouble.

After all, “For those who fight for it, life has a flavor the sheltered will never know,” according to Teddy Roosevelt.

I agree.

I'm a doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

2 thoughts on “If Time Were Not Linear, Where Would We Be? What Would We Do?

  1. That was a good read, Rene. I am glad you found time to put down these words even within your current hectic schedule. The Girl and your discussion about knowing and not knowing got me thinking, and I came to a slightly different conclusion than yours. I realized that knowing the ending doesn’t matter to me (one reason I don’t mind spoilers for anything) — because of a dichotomy: if I like the ending, I still don’t know which path to take to get there, and that makes the journey exciting. If I don’t like the ending, I can still try out myriads of ways to endeavor to avoid that particular ending and perhaps make another one. Having dealt with (and still dealing with) many exigent uncertainties in my life, I feel I hate not knowing.

    In fact, if I want to be morbid, I’d even say that ALL of us do know the ending, our personal ending: we all die, regardless of whoever we are and whatever we do. Therefore, what really matters is what we do with the time that we have.

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    • Well, yeah, we’ll all die. Like you said, I want to know what the trip will be like, and I want to know what my legacy will be. But I won’t, so I hope it’s good. If I knew that, and the ending, and all that… I don’t think life would be worth it. I guess that’s what I was trying to convey.
      I go back to the island tomorrow, back by the end of the year… But I always will find time to punch out a blog post or two.

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