John Cartan - Sun, Apr 3, 1994 9:25 PM

Thirty-six, I have decided, is an interesting age to be. For the first time in my life, the things I have forgotten outnumber the things I can still remember. The effect, somewhat to my surprise, is a kind of bouyancy.


Transcendence is too fancy a word for this change. And yet it does feel sometimes as if I have lifted up off the surface of things like a balloon straining at its tether.

In college I caught my first real glimpse of "the big picture." That is, I began to understand how big the universe really is. Above us, innumerable wheeling galaxies blow like sand across a shoreless Sahara of spacetime. But there is an even vaster space inside. Each one of us is a portable universe and our entire lives are but the scratchings upon the surface of that inner space. And even on this puny speck of an earth in this instant of time, there are continents teaming with cities teaming with portable universes. This is the "big picture."


I did not understand this in college, mind you, I just began to understand it. It's only been in the last few years that a deeper understanding has begun to settle in. My current understanding is built upon a decade-or-so of chance encounters with "the deep," moments of epiphany in which I catch a glimpse of a distant city which would take a lifetime just to walk through, or stumble upon a library in that city with more books than I could ever count, let alone read, or find a book in that library about far greater libraries which are now so much dust in the wind.

A turning point was the Borges story "The Library of Babel." Until reading it I had not felt much connection with the infinite because it seemed a rather abstract and unreal concept. But Borges taught me that there is no discernable difference between an infinite number and very large finite numbers we encounter every day. Our power to understand is finite and any fish too big to fall within that net is, for all intents and purposes, infinite. Infinities are real and unconquerable - but not unexplorable.


This journey of understanding is a journey we all make, alone and silent along a hard road. As children we live, at first, like animals: in the present moment, the eternal now, a condition which adults never fail to describe as "happy." But as soon as we divide space into within-reach and beyond-reach, time into already-gone and yet-to-be, and society into me and not-me, we set foot upon that lonely road. And each new division carries us another step.

At first our universe is very small, consisting of a luminescent self with small dark planets orbiting nearby. Like the king of pointland in Edwin Abbott's Flatland, we imagine ourselves omnicient and omnipotent, and bellow in rage every time we discover a new limitation. Step by step our model of the universe expands and, instinctively, we try to find a meaningful place for ourselves in that model.


The growing disparity between me and not-me is, for some reason, very hard to take. As the measurements are made and the distances mount, many escape into the opiates of religion, and there are as many religions as there are people.

Romantic love was my religion, even as a child. My secret faith, for which I suffered many pubescent torments, was that even as my little universe was expanding outward into the increasingly cold eternal night, somewhere out there there was another little universe with a beautiful girl inside, like a fairy in a bubble, searching for me with the same unwavering courage with which I sought her. As my vision expanded my heart sank, for it seemed increasingly unlikely that two little bubbles could ever find each other in so vast an ocean. But since my only hope for salvation depended on a continuing exploration, my exploration continued.


By the time I met my wife, my concept of "love" had become rather more complex. I had graduated from a college of my own devising in which all the faculty were women and each woman taught from a different department. I am still digesting the lessons I learned but I believe that, in essence, they boil down to two basic truths.

First, every man is different, every woman is different, and every relationship is different and has different rules. This means that every time you love you have to start over from scratch. Second, men are all the same, women are all the same, and the more things change the more they stay the same. This means that beneath all the differences and complications which divide us there is a never-ending unity of purpose, and thus a never-ending possibility of love. They say the opposite of a great truth is another great truth. It's no wonder we're all so confused.


Another lesson I have learned along the way, a bitter lesson that every lover struggles to deny, is that, even in love, uncertainty is as inescapable as death. We are frequently forced to make critical decisions based upon insufficent information. In fact we ALWAYS have insufficient information; we are born that way and even the wisest of us dies that way. Indeed, one of the qualities of heaven that we most yearn for is clarity. Heaven is a place in which we can finally rise above the mists and mire which obscure our earthy vision and see each other as we really are.

Moments of profound insight are like glimpses of this heaven, but inevitably, finite beings that we are, we slide back into the muck of our confusion. And yet we are still required to make choices every day, like blind men forced to run a maze. Thus life, as many others before me have concluded, is unfair.


All of this education has not exactly weakened my faith in my private religion of romantic love, but it has diffused that faith. I have evolved from a fiery Baptist to a harmless Unitarian. I now see that the path I have taken is the same path that everyone else is on and leads, in the end, to the same place. You have your religions and I have mine, but the more we seek and the more we learn, the more we share. We have our finitude in common.

As I become comfortable with this finitude, I become comfortable with my mortality and with all my limitations. Gradually, I begin to float. As the splashing of my youth subsides I perceive that I have been swimming against a current. Paradoxically, it is only when I relax and accept my place in the river that I begin to make progress. Even now the river is sweeping me into new vistas.

This, much to my surprise, is what it is like to be 36.