I recall a recurrent dream from my childhood when I was about eight years old, though I may have been as young as six. Perhaps it was more a waking night-mare; a tale I would tell myself over and over as I dozed and waited for sleep to come.
It began simply enough with a comic book image. A single panel showing a truck with an open back, going around a corner on two wheels. In the back of the truck was a box, and in the box was me. I had been kidnapped and was being taken away.
I didn’t much like the scenario, and wanted to escape – so I made that happen in my ‘dream.’ The box was merely cardboard. I broke out of it.
But my kidnappers were clever. They had taken advantage of my initial confusion to put my box inside another. And while I could, of course, break out of that one also, the game was now well and truly afoot, and I found myself breaking out of an infinite number of boxes, only to find myself in another box.
This scenario re-presented itself to my mind often. It was really a repetition of another anxiety-provoking scenario that niggled at me after the lights went out. In this (earlier) scenario, I ponder the limits of space; the universe just seems too vast. It must have a limit! But what sort of limit could that be? And what would a limit do except become a signpost to yet more ‘space’ beyond the limit? The image here was a Starship Enterprise nudging a vast brick wall at the edge of the universe. My problem was always that there is more universe beyond the wall. Infinity made me uncomfortable, but my solutions only underlined the problem. My discomfort was bearable because I was aware that an infinite extension in space was effectively meaningless. It really made no difference to what I did ‘at the centre’ if the edges were indeterminate. Nevertheless, it niggled.
It was only when I turned to the problem of eternity that I found a solution I could rest with. Here, the problem did not present itself as unlimited time – that produced no pictures in my mind – but the limitations on our time on earth; I conceived of the problem in moral terms given the limitation presented by death. Put simply, “if I’m going to die, what good is my life?” So now the problem was not unlimited extension, but limitation! I could see no positive benefit in a life that was limited. Everything would pass away as though it had never existed. The immediate answer was that I could use my life to leave the world a better place, to make other people’s lives better. But what then is the point of those lives? It was yet another meaningless infinite progression. I was stumped. The answer I came to was that life really is pointless unless there is a means of transcending death.
Thus I came to believe in the logical necessity of God for a meaningful human existence.
Only God, who is beyond time (and space, for that matter) can appropriately value human life. If, as I presumed then, he can communicate immortality to human beings, we too will be able to value our lives and live our lives by those values. We could gain meaningfulness within time-bound existence by virtue of our faith in an eternal existence.
Back to my box.
Although I could now conceive of infinite time as meaningful, I was unwilling to face infinite meaningless progression in space, unwilling to merely bash forever through cardboard boxes – especially since my captors were merely mortals. But they must have been thoroughly wealthy mortals, because their solution to my efforts to escape was to send me into orbit. I came to the final box in the series only to see infinite space beyond. I don’t know what might (or might not) have been in that space; angels or emptiness, but I knew that I could not live there. I was trapped. I remained in the final box, with a view into space and a form of resignation.
Why am I recalling this now?
Joseph Campbell describes the modern view of ourselves as having broken free from ‘myth’ and says that this is merely another myth in itself. This reminded me of my boxes; of how we have discarded our old sacred notions of the universe and so think we have broken free of constraint because we stand on new ground; but we do not yet perceive that our new ground is merely the inside of yet another box. From which we will eventually break free …and so on.
I believe that the ‘boxes’ are, by and large, artificial constructs – hence they can be broken. We can escape our captors.
But there really are limits in space and time beyond which we cannot pass. There is a limit to the distance we can travel in space. There is a limit to human longevity in death. There is a limit to our ability to escape cultural constructs. And it is when we come within sight of those limits that we learn the resignation necessary to live in whatever ‘box’ we choose.
But I would recommend the last box. The one that gives us the clearest view of our limits and the most room for our lives. Anything less is cowardice, and, given the possibility of transcending time, bravery has real value.