Blank Canvas

by Alan Fleming

Philosophy is my passion. I know, I know, but it is not what you think. That image in your head of a slightly unhappy dude, with a grey cardigan and brown carpet tie, sitting alone in a corner reading some obscure text and rambling on and on about the thoughts of dead people is wildly inaccurate…

I don’t read obscure texts.

To be fair, I don’t read much philosophy at all any more. Partly I don’t have time, but partly I just don’t care for the opinions of professional philosophers anymore. That is not to say I don’t drop quotes from my list of legends, like Sartre, Nietzsche and Laozi, or dabble in some modern ideas from the land of the living, but rather that I prefer a purer form of thought now. A clean, free form that allows me to rid myself of labels and dogma and just think, for the sake of thinking.

Of course this is not without risk. My free form thinking could be as wildly inaccurate as your image of a lover of philosophy! But so what? Who cares if I get the details wrong? So what if quarks aren’t what I think they are or someone has discovered that the nature of water can be determined purely through an understanding of its chemical make-up? Or if my ideas are exactly the same as those of Wittgenstein or Quangzi? The fun and joy in thinking is not diminished, even if the end product is not so original or correct.

Just the other day I was rambling to some of my students about my latest breakthrough about the nature of memories and time stamps. I was in top form; excited, slightly over animated, my favorite brown tie swinging from side to side. The rant went something like this:

Our memories are a collection of experiences, real or imagined, stored in a time order in our heads. This time order, however, is not attached to the sense datum that assaults our senses and gives us the fodder for thoughts and memories. Nay! Sense datum and by extension our memories are free of the concept of time. We add the time.

There was a prolonged silence. Then one of my padawans spoke, “so what?” she said.

“So what!” I exclaimed, shaking my head in amazement.

If our memories have no independently attached time stamp then they are timeless. Which means, if, somehow, we managed to remove our concept of time, then our memories would be order-less. We wouldn’t be able to tell when our experiences occurred, nor could we separate them. In fact, we wouldn’t even be able to establish when now is, except that we are experiencing it… um… well… now. Which means, if we started recalling an event from our memory it would seem real. Like we were literally living it.

Silence.

Don’t you see? This explains how the aliens in ‘Slaughterhouse-five’ knew everything that was, is and will be, and were able to jump between those ‘times’.

More silence as I caught my breath. Then the student, finally seeing my idea said, “wait, I get the past and present bit, but how can they see the future if the future hasn’t happened yet.”

A salient point, I thought, as I flushed with pride that this young philosopher actually understood what I was ranting about.

I don’t know exactly, but I think the future is whatever we want it to be. I have ‘memories’ of my future. Not experiences that I have lived, but dreams I have imagined of what my future life will be like. If this parallel universe were real and we could shed our concept of time, then unlived and lived experiences would be indistinguishable. Therefore, I would have access to everything that was, is and will be, albeit having no way to know reality from dream.

After making this last point, and feeling both excited and confused at what it all meant, I looked up to see one of the other students crying. Not an unusual reaction to one of my rants during break time when students are trying to catch up on homework. I asked her what was wrong and she said, “I can’t foresee anything in my future beyond falling short of my parents expectations. There is no success in my dreams, just disappointment.”

This amazingly intelligent human being was crying because she was worried that if she could make her future through dreams, her future would be terrible. How unbelievably sad. I almost starting crying with her.

All is not lost! I said slightly too loudly.

Your experiences would not suddenly become fixed once your concept of time was shed. They would still be as fluid as they are now. New memories would form, new dreams can be had. There is still and always will be hope. Just because right now, in this pressure cooker that is the final years of high school for an Asian student, you feel lost and unable to conjure a positive outcome does not mean one is not possible. If we can shed ourselves of our concept of time, we can definitely shed ourselves of our parent’s bullshit.

“But we can’t shed our concept of time.” She replied.

Student 1 : Teacher 0.

She was right, of course. We can’t, at least not easily. Which implies that we are stuck in our artificially time structured reality, and by logical extension, our parent’s unrealistic expectations.

I was overcome with despondency, which, in my experience is a wonderful catalyst for breakthroughs! And as if on cue, I had a eureka moment.

We don’t need to shed our concept of time to have access to all that was, is and will be. We still have it, with or without the time concept. Our memories are just like a deck of cards. They have no pre-set order, but rather, the order is added by the dealers shuffle or the game itself. With or without the order the cards are the same. Our memories are no different. I can conjure any future I want, as long as the card is in the deck! And, because of the fluid nature of our mental deck, pretty much anything and everything is possible.

Naturally, my time concept is going to tell me all sorts of things about past, present and future and probably about reality and dreams, but so what. I have survived nearly 4 decades listening to unhelpful inner voices, this is just another to ignore.

Just like your parents unrealistic expectations, I said. Don’t allow yourself to be trapped in the dealers pattern, break free and conjure up a new future filled with wonder and hope.

We both smiled.

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