Past, Present, Future, and Locked Doors

I’m someone who is prone to contemplation: about life, death, eternity, and how I relate to the universe. Since two of my greatest passions are religion and science fiction, this is probably my own fault. If I quit reading scripture or space opera, maybe I wouldn’t have to spend as much time worrying about the future. As it is, though, I can’t go back to fix that past. Instead I’m doomed to always worry about the future. It’s just my lot in life, I suppose.

This fate is not without its upsides, as it provides me with near-endless ways to redefine my understanding of the universe. I am drawn to stories, a trait which I think is common in human beings but particularly important to me. We tell our history and all our greatest myths and legends through story, with links of causality connecting the events in an ongoing web through time and space. An event is not simply an event; it is one link in the great fabric of human experience. Then, just as important as the logical links of causality, there are also the abstract links of theme, symbol, emotion, and association. These are the links that I find most fascinating. They are, in large part, what makes us human, yet also what helps us to transcend simple humanity and connect with something more profound.

Because that is what the abstract connections are all about: that quality which is called profound, and moving, and soul-stirring, and spiritual.

Still, I can’t deny that there is a downside to my contemplative fate, and that is the worry. It’s easy to get too bogged down in abstract thoughts and patterns, and to worry about how your story is going to play out. Will it follow the traditional arc, patterned after the stories that came before, easy to understand and predict because in a sense it has already happened, but unoriginal and sometimes tragic? Or will it take you somewhere else entirely, off the charts and away from the predictable frame of reality, exciting yet exhausting and frightening in its unpredictability?

It’s terrifying not to know everything.

The problem is, when you realize you don’t know everything, it’s all too easy to fool yourself into thinking you know nothing.

At the back of one of the many buildings in the garden of the Summer Palace in Beijing, there is a door. It’s not a door you can walk through, nor look through.  The entirety of the space within the frame is filled with bricks, of the same shade and shape as those that make up the wall surrounding it. It was put there sometime around 1898, when the Empress Dowager decided she’d had enough of her nephew the Emperor and his attempts at reform, so she ordered to have him placed under house arrest and many of the doors sealed up. He lived under house arrest, Emperor in name only, for ten years.

Most of us are lucky. We aren’t emperors of a dying empire, locked in a room by a power-hungry aunt and prevented from knowing what other people don’t want us to know. Our view might be obscure, and we might not be able to know everything, but we can still see. And hope tells us that there is a chance we might someday see more. Perhaps even, says hope, our knowledge might be perfect.

I don’t think I’m a very hopeful person, at least not naturally. I think that’s why I try to remind myself of it every day. Hope is not an easy trait to hold on to, but not everything has to be easy. After all, life doesn’t reward you for doing things the easy way. It rewards you for finding what’s good, and holding on tight, and helping as many people along with you as you can. Life rewards hard work, and endurance, and optimism. It rewards taking what you have and making it better. Sometimes our efforts get us locked in a room with a walled-up door and boarded-up windows, but at least we know that it wasn’t because we didn’t try. And somewhere, somehow, if we’re lucky, our efforts might just mean something, to someone.

Whether by luck, fate, or divine blessing, locked doors can be opened. And when that happens, I hope the future they lead me to is a good one. I hope it is full of light, but not so much that I forget the darkness that made me love light in the first place. I hope it’s full of peace, but not of the complacency that too often follows. I hope it’s full of art, and life, and beauty of every kind. And I hope that it’s full of potential, because life without progress is no life at all.

Open doors of a Roman ruin


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