A sketch of a bigger picture
I. The Order of Things
Flatland is a fascinating book. A 19th century a novella set in a fictional two-dimensional world populated by shapes. In Flatland, one’s social status is a direct result of the number of edges in your shape. Triangles are the workers, squares the aristocrats, hexagons the priests, and lines, tragically, are women.
One a fateful day, Flatland is visited by a new shape: a sphere. A three-dimensional curiosity, the sphere can levitate in and out of two-dimensional Flatland. As seen by the Flatlanders, the sphere can grow and shrink, disappear and teleport at will. From the perspective of the sphere, it is simply moving around. But to the flat shapes, it is a supernatural creature, operating in a higher dimension they cannot understand.
Flatland is worthwhile reading: an adventure, full of political intrigue and farsighted social commentary. But for our purposes, it is a metaphor: world as point of view.
Flatlanders lived in two dimensions, two directions. For them the third, which the sphere could navigate, was fixed, unnavigable.
We, on the other hand, live in three dimensions. And so for us, the fixed direction is the fourth. That direction is time. (Not to be melodramatic).
Time is a point of view. We experience it roughly linearly — the arrow of time is key the orienting principle of the lived human experience. But what if instead, we thought of time as yet another dimension? A direction you could go, forwards and back, existing as part of the total field of play.
Up and down, ahead and behind, left and right, and now forwards and back — a four dimensional place, in which all times can be said to exist “simultaneously”, just like above and below exist simultaneously.
Einstein theorized something similar, which he referred to as a “block” universe. We might call it the great cosmic Om.
If the world a single, cosmic moment, why do we humans experience time as passing? Why are we subjected to the tragedy of birth and death?
Many cultures, from the Hindus to the Jews, have wrestled with this question, and have put forward as an explanation the idea of multiple lifetimes. The Hindus call it Samsara, the Jews the Gilgul HaNeshamot. The idea is the same: we are universal souls, returning again and again to live out new lives in the world.
It is a strange concept, on it’s face. Why would an immortal soul come back to earth, when it could enjoy the blissful perfection of an afterlife? But it does make a certain kind of sense.
If time, and therefore these lives, are merely a point of view, what could we conclude? What else might be true? We could suggest that these multiple lives are merely a perspective, and that the deeper truth would be that all lifetimes are lived simultaneously, that a single “soul” is revealing itself, being perceived, in myriad forms. The individual lifetimes are temporary containers.
It is a potent idea, as it suggests that there is not so much to fear. All tragedies turn to comedies.
III. Divine Comedy
Why do we experience time in this particular, inevitable, finite way? Why do we find ourselves coming back, again and again and again? Why do we experience the world, which is constant and eternal, as being dynamic and in flow? Is there some value to the experience of change?
In The Celestine Prophecy, James Redfield presents life as familial drama, every person a conflicting dialectic of their two parents. Our parents’ unique strengths and weaknesses combine in us, creating a never-before-seen cocktail of brilliance and insanity, strength and weakness. We are born with a bag of gifts and a bag of trauma, and every life is a chance cultivate and share the gifts, and to integrate and heal the trauma.
The psychiatrist Brien L. Weiss has written extensively on the topic of multiple lives, including the poignant Only Love is Real. In this book, he describes the way in which people meet, consistently, over multiple lifetimes, drawn by a transcendent bond, keeping each other on track.
The book and film Cloud Atlas explore this theme as well, narrating the ways in which the same characters come together, again and again, to enact a psychodrama of love, fear, and purification. Over many lifetimes, characters who are initially craven and selfish learn to love and care for others, failing and failing until at last they succeed.
What is the point?
Our experience of times gives us an experience of life: of birth, growth, and death. Where the cosmic Om is static, our lives our dynamic: we experience changes in perspective, changes in form. We live out stories. Just as our bodies are born, grow, and die, so too does our understanding. As Thomas Kuhn suggests in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, every lifetime is a chance to develop a novel point of view. Our minds, like our bodies, have a lifecycle.
Carl Jung has proposed a collective unconscious — the idea that culture is a team sport. We are continuously shape and are shaped by this shared understanding. This collective understanding wishes to grow — to deepen its understanding of itself and the world in which it finds itself. Let’s go ahead and say that it desires a deeper knowledge of God, however you might define it. Through us, it is continuously learning. In Answer to Job, Jung suggests that while sometimes we have ideas, sometimes ideas have us.
In our lifetimes, we perceive this learning as advances in science, art, and spirituality. We admire those random individuals who make these advances, on behalf of us all. The Jews have a concept of the 36 hidden saints, anonymous individuals who emerge at key moments to bend the course of history, then sinking into the background. It may be that we are all going around and around, taking our turn.
Fundamentally, this must be a process, as any finite understanding of an infinite is inherently limited. As Douglas Hofstadter discusses, brilliantly, in Gödel, Escher, Bach, any specific language is inevitably limited. Only by continuously developing new languages and new forms, each taking lessons from the old, can we continue to advance our collective awareness. Every lifetime is an opportunity to understand something new.
This idea repeatedly emerges. The sublime Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance picks up this theme, describing in detail the difference between specific, rational understanding and pure, direct experience. We are continuously attempting to describe the indescribable. As Alfred Whitehead argues in Process and Reality, the essence of the world is change; fixed objects are merely temporary impressions. In his On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism, Gershom Scholem describes how the written Torah is merely a pointer to a hidden, implicit text, which can only be understood in dialogue with others. The same ideas, again and again.
Heady philosophy aside, what does that mean for us, alive today?
We can point to two shared values: that of insight and that of harmony. Intellectual, creative insight into the order of things, and the ability to exist harmoniously with others. In every lifetime, we pursue knowledge, and we deepen relationships. Like the wings of a bird, these two competencies unite and propel us forward, individually and collectively. That is enough.