Sunday, June 03, 2012

Viewing the river from the bridge

For whatever reason, it’s natural for men to imagine the past as something behind us. That’s a powerful metaphor, which shapes our outlook on life. the past lies over our shoulder. The longer we live, our earlier years recede ever further into the distance. We look back, but move forward into the future.

This implicit metaphor is often made more explicit by depicting the passage of time as a river. However, that depends on how we fill out the imagery. What is stationary and what is fluid? Where do we position ourselves?

From one possible perspective, we’re like rafters or boaters carried downstream by the current. From that perspective, the past is behind us. The past is the land on either side of the river. Trees and meadows we sweep by as we continue downstream. The past is upstream while the future is downstream. We are heading into the future.

But it’s possible to turn this around. To reverse the viewpoint. If you’re in the river, on a raft, then you’re in motion while the scenery is stationary.

But if you’re sitting on the riverbank, or standing on a bridge, then you are stationary. From that perspective, the past is washing downstream. The future is upstream while the past is downstream, as you watch the water flow downstream.

It’s also possible to combine these two perspectives. If the river washes the past downstream, and you take a boat down the river, then you will catch up with your past. The past empties into the lake, or pond, or harbor, or ocean. The past gathers or regathers at the mouth of the stream or river.

The headwaters are the beginning of time while the mouth of the river is the end of time. Yet it comes full circle.

On this counterintuitive view, the past lies ahead of you, not in back of you. That’s a radically different perspective on life.

And there’s a qualified sense in which that’s the Biblical view of history. For in Scripture, we have a new Eden, new Jerusalem motif.

Thankfully, history doesn’t exactly repeat itself. Rather, the river of time filters out the pollutants. The world to come is, to some degree, the past purified. As if there were fine-mesh nets stretching across the riverbanks, to screen the water. Capture contaminants. Snag debris.

We can also consider this from the vantage-point of circular motion. When a loved one dies, with the passing weeks, months, and years, there’s a sense in which your loved one is further away. Further behind. With each passing day, the sense of distance increases. The absence elongates.

It’s like moving in a circle, where-for the first half of the journey–you’re moving away. But there comes a day, at the midpoint of the circular journey, when you begin swing around. The return-trip.

Suppose you have a beloved Christian friend or relative who died. Suppose you die ten years later. As time goes on, you had to wait that much longer for the reunion, but by the same token, you have less time to wait than when they died. It feels longer, but the time is shorter. You may feel as if they are falling ever further behind, but you are drawing ever nearer. The gap is closing rather than lengthening.  

1 comment:

  1. Steve,

    Thanks for this. Very insightful.

    Apparently, the Greeks conceptualized time in terms of the individual being stationary and the future was behind them (what they could not know) and the past in front of them (what they could know). So they would speak of future time as "overtaking" a person in the present. Accordingly, they prioritized the past and minimized the future. In contrast, moderns today minimize the past and focus on the future.

    This is an oversimplification, but the gist.