Time travel 101: Does the past and the future reside only in the now?

Share this page...

with Rev. Clay Nelson

Time Travel 101:
The past and the future reside only in the now
Listen, or download the MP3

Read below, or download the PDF

Follow this shortcut to the bottom of the page for the various readings, videos, etc. shared in the service.

Clay Nelson © 11 April 2021

The Sankofa Bird

Sankofa comes from the Twi language of Ghana in West Africa. A common English translation is “go back and get it.” The sankofa bird is an example of adinkra. Adinkra symbols make up a highly symbolic language—similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics. They are common among the Akan people of Ghana, and have made their way into the wider African diaspora. The symbols express complex thoughts and proverbs. The sankofa bird’s head faces backward as it attempts to catch its lost egg in its mouth. Its feet face forward. One translation is, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have lost,” or “that which was taken.” Learn your past so that it may guide your actions in the present for the purpose of shaping the future. Another translation: “remember the past to protect the future.”

Whether it is a story about Rip Van Winkle or A Wrinkle in Time, sentient and self-aware beings cannot escape their enchantment with time. It wasn’t only Unitarian Charles Dickens who used time travel as a device to offer Scrooge redemption by visits to his Christmas’ past, present and future. Time like threads woven into the warp and weft of our lives connects us and all that followed the big bang. Tracing those threads as we seek to know where they lead has been a human endeavour since the ancient past.

Hindu mythology tells the story of a king who travels to heaven to meet the creator Brahma and is surprised to learn when he returns to earth that many ages have passed. The Payasi Sutta tells of one of the Buddha’s disciples explaining to the sceptic Payasi that time in the Heavens passes differently from on Earth. A Japanese tale tells of a young fisherman who visits an undersea palace. After three days, he returns home to his village and finds himself 300 years in the future, where he has been forgotten, his house is in ruins, and his family has died. In Jewish tradition, a 1st-century BCE a scholar is said to have fallen asleep and slept for seventy years. When waking up he returned home but found none of the people he knew, and no one believed his claims of who he was.

Washington Irvine’s, Madeleine L‘Engle’s, H G Wells’, C S Lewis’and, of course, Dickens’ literary efforts are a time-honoured genre embedded in our humanity. Travelling time induces the imagination to explore our past, present and future, that we might know ourselves, our purpose and our place in the ever evolving cosmos.

But storytellers aren’t the only ones fascinated by time. Isaac Newton thought time could not be travelled. Albert Einstein thought maybe it could. Religious leaders reflected on its nature. The historical Jesus seems to have been one of those individuals who didn’t concern himself much about the future, suggesting we not sweat the small stuff,

“Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them… Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

Lao Tse imparted,

“Dwelling in the past robs the present, but ignoring the past robs the future. The seeds of our destiny are nurtured by the roots of the past.”

That’s a more profound way of saying we should learn from our pasts, so we don’t end up repeating our mistakes.

Philosophers, too, cannot help pondering the nature of time. Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote of the past, present and future,

“Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power.”

Or, as stoic author William Irvine wrote,

“There are things over which we have complete control [mostly in the present], things over which we have no control at all [always the past], and things over which we have some but not complete control [the future].”

Søren Kierkegaard famously said,

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

New age thinkers also are mesmerised by time. I am not usually drawn to their work but Eckhart Tolle’s 1997 bestseller, The Power of Now is an exception. Perhaps his main point is best summarised in the following sentence:

“Nothing ever happened in the past; it happened in the Now. Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen Now.”

This statement seems indisputable. Time, as we experience it, is always in this moment. When we experienced the past, it also happened in the now. And when the future arrives, it too will be now. When we fret too much over the past, over our mistakes, things we wish had happened differently or not at all, our now can be overwhelmed with regret. Worrying to much about a future that hasn’t come, struggling to make things turn out just the way we want them, even though they seldom do, may only lead to disappointment and missing out on what’s happening right now.

I have now had more than two decades to reflect on what Tolle considered intuitively obvious, and my intuition is not yet convinced that the past and present only happen in the now. And not just because I love Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Einstein’s theory of relativity gives us pause to consider the relative nature of time, which makes some physicists take the possibility of time travel seriously. Todd F. Eklofobserves,

“Just as we know our species can only perceive what’s between 400 and 700 nanometres of the electromagnetic spectrum, which means we’re blind to ultraviolet or infrared light, our perception may also be limited by our ability to only perceive one moment of time.”

Eklof then gives an example:

“There’s a character in the graphic novel Watchmen who is able to perceive the past, present, and future all at once due to an accident that’s altered his quantum state. It’s just science fiction, but Doctor Manhattan, as he’s named, is a good philosophical thought experiment requiring us to consider the real possibility that the relative nature of time could make it possible to experience time differently under the right circumstances or with the right technology. If we weren’t constrained by our limited perceptions, we might be able to experience alternate timelines, the same way we’ve developed technologies to block harmful UV light, or to make use of infrared remote controls, even though both are beyond our normal power to perceive. It could be the past and future overlap with the present and they all influence each other, even if we can’t see how any more than we can see the infrared beam we use to control our TVs.”

If I had a time machine, maybe a Back to the Future DeLorean retrofitted with a flux capacitor, I would use it almost solely to go to the past. Since most of what we think we know about history is mere scraps of paper and faded photos giving only a glimpse of the person or event, I would like to fill in the gaps and make my own interpretation. Hell, I would like to go back and examine all that I have forgotten about my own life and those who shaped it. As to the future, I would like to shape it by who I am now. If I knew in advance what the consequences of each my actions and choices will be, I would want to become a hermit in hiding, fearing the future not embracing it with hope. Alas, even that would have fallout. I would rather choose to remember my past and dream of a future that could be and do my best now to be the change I seek. And if I am lucky, some in the future might remember me as a good ancestor.

Meditation / Conversation starter:


Chalice Lighting is “On The Brink” By Leslie Takahashi

Hymn:- “Tomorrow” composed by Kate and Justin Miner,
performed by the UUA General Assembly 2020 virtual choir.
Koha Song:- “Mother Spirit, Father Spirit”, #8 from Singing the Living Tradition
Performer: Dave Rowe, for the Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City, Iowa, USA.
Closing Song:-  “The Ceaseless Flow of Endless Time”, #350
Performed by members of First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, MD, USA.

Closing Words are by Ralph Waldo Emerson