Letter Found on a Park Bench

"Dear me, I'm afraid I have some peculiar news for you."

That's the way the letter started. I sat there staring at it in confusion. I'd just been walking through a park and decided to rest for a while. When I sat down on a bench, there was an envelope there beside me. No stamp, no address, no marks of any kind.

I looked around, but there was no one in sight. I thought it might be important to somebody. I looked inside to see if there was a name. It wasn't sealed, the flap was just folded in. I took out a few sheets of paper printed on a laser printer, and began to read.

"Dear me, I'm afraid I have some peculiar news for you. Right now you're trying to figure out this weird letter, right? Well, hang on, things are about to get a lot weirder. You're wondering who wrote it and just left it here? The truth is, you wrote it. Or you will, or you will have some day - sorry about the ambiguity here, the language just doesn't have enough tenses to talk about this stuff.

So I'm you. As you know, I... or we, in a manner of speaking, tend to sit around and think deep thoughts sometimes; you know, heavy philosophical stuff. So I was doing that one day, and I was really going strong. Ideas were just popping into my brain like bubbles in champagne. And suddenly I figured it all out. The Big One. The Big Enchilada Theory of Everything. You know, the Meaning of Life.

See, I thought about how there was a whole unresolvable paradox about time: either it goes on forever, or it doesn't. If it had a beginning, what was there before time began? It's a meaningless question, because the word "before" implies an earlier time. Same with an end. It's like the child's question, what number comes after infinity? Infinity is not a number, it's an idea. It's not a limit, it's a direction. How could a direction cease to exist? Even if all matter were to wink out of existence someday, can we believe that time would cease as well? An empty universe would have no events marking any instant of time, but the instants would continue to occur. We cannot conceive of something being without time.

But the idea of eternal time is just as paradoxical. If the universe is not just ancient but is truly eternal, an infinite amount of time has already passed. In an infinite time, every infinitely unlikely event will already have occurred. Pigs must have already flown, hell must have frozen over. Everything is inevitable.

This gives life the uncomfortable flavor of determinism. If all possible paths of history have already occurred, whatever happens next is absolutely certain to have happened before in exactly the same way. And since the future is infinite as well, it is doomed to repeat itself over and over again, endlessly, with no possible hope of breaking the cycle.

Now stay with me here. This is where it starts to get strange. I considered that time is just another dimension of space. We had the same trouble considering infinite space. The ancients always wondered what would happen if you kept walking in a straight line: would you keep coming to new countries forever, or would you come to some kind of end to the world? Neither seemed likely. Finally they discovered that neither theory was correct - the world was a sphere and if you walked far enough you would come back to the same spot from the opposite direction. The same thing happened when we looked out into space and wondered how far it went. Does it go on forever, or does it end? If it has a limit, what's outside that limit? And if it doesn't, how could it be expanding, as has been long ago confirmed?

The space paradox was of course resolved when the universe too was found to be curved. It is the curved surface of a closed four-dimensional solid. If you travel far enough, you would eventually return to your home planet from the opposite direction.

Now don't give up on this. We're getting to the punch line. I figured that time is just another dimension of this closed solid. It must work the same way. If you go far enough on into the future, you'll arrive right here from the past. Got that? A resolution to the old end-of-time paradox, right? So I was feeling pretty pleased with myself for figuring this out. But then I thought about it some more.

In one way, circular time seems fine. Who cares that it goes around and around, the same things happening over and over? It's like going around the world over and over; you're going to keep getting to the same places in the same order. The rub is that if you get tired of travelling, you can change direction or just stop. With time travel - and we're all travelling through time - you can't. No stopping, no turning, no parking. You can't even speed up or slow down. It's like we're on a model railroad layout, chugging around and around the same little piece of track. But again, who cares, right? We won't be around to see it repeat.

Ah, there's the rub. What if we are? The whole thing depends on the diameter of time, you see. We don't complain about being stuck on this round planet because it's diameter is eight thousand miles. Not many people get around it even once in their lives. There's a lot to see. But what if it were only eight miles in diameter? It wouldn't take much wandering around before you'd seen it all, before you started coming to the same places again and again. Make the diameter eight feet and you have a terrifying prison.

It's the same with time. If the diameter is big, history repeats itself every ten billion years and who's to care? Nobody gets bored. But what if it's only a thousand years? Say in the year 2000 we all suddenly return to the year 1000. But we wouldn't be wandering around in our Reeboks taking pictures of it. We'd all be medieval people. And just like now, we'd have records of the past. It's like the world just sprang into existence in 1000, with all its memories and histories completely formed. We'd all remember the year 999, but it never really happened. The world changes and evolves for a thousand years, then suddenly snaps back to 1000 and starts over.

No one would notice, because everything else jumps back with them. People wouldn't be moaning about missing their microwaves, they'd be busy building castles, completely ignorant that it had all been done before. So nobody minds the repetition. Still, it's a fairly bleak view of the world, you have to admit. There's no real progress, no free will. There is no future after 2000, so what does it matter what people do? What's the point of anything?

But there's an evening more alarming possibility. What if the diameter of time is only days, or hours, or minutes? We, the animals, the stars, every atom, would be locked into a ritual dance, endlessly repeating the same completely meaningless motions. Where is the joy in such a world, where is there room for love? It is full of sound and fury, signifying less than nothing. Again, if such is the case, we would not know it. Each of us would be making the same stylized gestures, feeling the same flow of emotions and reactions, over and over again. But each of us has a different part to play. Millions are in their cars, driving from a place they have never been to a place they'll never reach. Half are asleep, forever missing the only reality there will ever be. Some are experiencing joy, some fear, some ecstasy, some agony. Some are forever unborn, others forever dying.

For myself, I believe that I may have the hardest role of all. I am the one that figured it out. Whatever fraction of history actually occurred and how much is complete fiction, I have no way of knowing. I know that this moment is real, because this is the one in which I made my discovery. Cogito, ergo sum. I discovered that time repeats, and I have discovered it a trillion trillion times before. Of all the inhabitants of this planet (and who knows how many more?), I alone am aware of the senseless dance we are forced to repeat forever; the futile fugue of time. I have no way of knowing how much time I have before I am plunged back into forgetfulness. It could happen years from now, or this second, or this one, or this.

So what shall (or did) I do with this brief interval of awareness allotted to me? I thought of you, my successor. I pitied you having to come to this realization the way I did, at the last minute (assuming there is more than one minute). I wanted to warn you early, give you a chance to do something different if you can. I'll write a letter and leave it for you to find. I can leave it anywhere and know that you will (or I did) find it. When you do, make an "X" on the back to show you got it, and leave it for the next one of us.

So that's it. The Meaning of Life. Do with the knowledge as you will (as I did)."

I put the letter down and laughed out loud. What a great thing to write and just leave on a park bench for someone to find! I read it through again to make sure I understood the train of logic. What an idea! Could such a bizarre world be true? I thought about it and decided to go along with the gag. I'd make an "X" on the back of the letter to let the next me know that not only had my predecessor written the letter, but that I had received it.

I dug around in my gear until I found a stub of a pencil. Then I turned the letter over and stopped, staring. The back of the letter was covered in X's!

copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford