Tuesday, May 5, 2009

When Dad Changed the Future

We were in our accustomed places around the dinner table, with Dad seated at the end facing the kitchen. Mom scurried back and forth from the oven to the table, placing serving plates and bowls of food before us. The dinner menu rarely varied much, comprising beef, potatoes, and either canned peas or corn, the choice of which had been made thirty minutes earlier. The tossed salad was also the same every night, consisting of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, cucumber, and "mango", a southern Indiana idiom for green pepper. The salad dressing was Dad's special combination of Mullen's, Catalina, and 1890 brands of bottled french dressing, dispensed from a clear plastic squeeze bottle. Given the ritual constancy of our family dinner, who could have predicted that Dad would alter the future that evening?

The dinner started off as usual, with Dad waxing eloquent about some topic or another. He was a preacher, both by profession and at heart, and customarily employed the chair on the east end of the table as his pulpit. On this night, though, Dad illustrated his point with a simple action. He picked up the dinner knife from the right side of his plate and sat it down on the left, next to his fork. His intended point was simple and direct: "I've changed the future."

As accustomed as my brothers and I were to Dad's impromptu homilies, that simple, silly gesture got our attention. It also drew our ire. Knowing ourselves to be wise beyond our years, we were not likely to be drawn in by the sleight of hand of street magicians or the siren calls of carnival barkers. "Oh, come on! All you did was move your knife!" We returned our attention to our plates, wary that our rivals around the table would finish before us and claim seconds.

"Every action we take changes the world," Dad said, "even those as seemingly insignificant as moving the silverware." We remained unswayed, despite Dad's earnest oratory, and left the table triumphant. Dad's argument that evening fell on deaf ears.

Years later, studying under cosmologist Brian Swimme, I wrote a paper about the so-called, "time cone". Though the concept is not easily summarized in a blog post, the visual image I would place before you is of an hourglass, placed on its side. There is no sand in the glass... it is time which is flowing. One end of the glass represents the future, and the other the past. The narrow center of the glass is the here and now. But here is the surprising thing about the time cone: Rather than the future flowing through the here and now into the past, the current is reversed! It is the past which flows into every present moment. And it is from the here and now that the future, until now indeterminate, bursts into possibility.

It was in the course of my work on the time cone paper that I first recalled Dad's subtle knife switch so long before. For the first time I understood the point he had tried to make. The past becomes real when we remember it and act in response. The future is an unwritten book, awaiting our decisions and actions to make it possible.

No one image has had such an impact on my thought and life as has this simple notion. Every moment is filled with promise. Each second is pregnant with possibility. Even actions as simple and random as switching the flatware from one side of the plate to the other can embody consequences for the future. 

Given my clear memory of it, it turns out that Dad's supper sermon didn't fall on deaf ears. I am left wondering whether his point that evening merely reflected reality, or altered it. I suspect that it changed me somehow. And wasn't that the point?

Damn. He did change the future.

In grateful memory of Harry W. Bredeweg (1917-1981).

1 comment:

  1. Wow! The power of how we understand time can change everything.
    'As the past flows into every present moment, it is from the here and now, that the future bursts into possibility.'
    Now what do I want to do with my future?