# philosophy

A junkyard car buried in diry with a license plate that says time.

At Aeon, David Borkenhagen has an essay speculating on an octopus’s experience of time. The essay is completely speculative, but it’s still very thoughtful.

Consider this. As humans, our experience of time is determined by our shape — our geometry. I have a face that points forward. I can look and walk in the same direction — forward. I can’t gracefully move or look backward. So it follows that my understanding of time is defined by linear forward motion. All of the metaphors for time I’ve ever heard are linear. Sometimes we think of time as cyclical, but still a line — a line that forms a circle or a spiral. More often, we think of time as a march of progress from the past into the future. As time progresses, we advance, from monkeys to hunter-gatherers to farmers to bankers to space monkeys. We move in a line.

We understand time based on our changing relationship with our environment. If nothing changes, it feels like time isn’t passing. Time measures change. Our relationship to that change defines our experience of time. We think of time as passing. Sometimes we sit still and time moves around us, like a passenger on a train watching the world pass by. Sometimes we make time move, like a runner sprinting through the forest. Sometimes we feel more comfortable looking into the past, which is knowable and familiar. Other times we feel more comfortable looking into the future, which is moldable and promising. But always we are moving in a line through time.

But the octopus doesn’t move in a line. The octopus can see almost 360 degrees. With her eight arms, she can move in any direction, including up and down. Free of one-dimension movement, how does an octopus understand timespace?

To get into the octopus’s head, I try to step outside of the mind of linear progress. In the natural world, things are constantly repeating and renewing. Things change and then change back. In that sense, time doesn’t neatly move forward. It doesn’t even necessarily move in a circle. It moves like seaweed, in waves.

Borkenhagen explains that we can see both the past and the future as workable. Most people believe that we can create our future. But psychologists and historians understand that we can also create the past. Modern rationalists prefer to see the past as fixed, but in truth it is very murky. Trauma therapists help their patients reframe the past by re-understanding traumatic situations. Without changing any historical fact, the patient can develop a different experience of a past situation. Historians, on the other hand, will constantly unearth and debate historical evidence to reframe the past. So the past and the future are both shifting. But what about the present? If anything seems fixed, it’s the present moment. And yet. You can change the present moment by changing your perspective. This is the truism of half-empty and half-full. If time is defined by an individual’s experience of change relative to their environment, there is remarkable capacity to shift the present moment while time stands still. We can change our present position without moving in time.

      Good Memory◄──►Bad Memory
            │            │
        ▼         ▼          ▼
Half Empty◄───►Present◄───►Half Full
       │          │          │
           ▼            ▼
         Hope          Fear

If we try to forget the linear concept of advancing through time (which, Borkenhagen points out might also demand that we loosen our obsession with our own mortality in favor of a perceiving generations of life that transcend individuals) then maybe we can see time as something shifting, moving backwards and forwards, turning around, shifting from side to side.

We often see ourselves as trapped in time. But, in this view, we break open a world of possibility. The moment is expansive.

Two guys playing backgammon in the tropics
Liam and Oli playing backgammon on Banda Island.

In this essay, Aeon gives a nice overview of the concept of coincidence in 20th-century Western thought in this article. I was happy to read this piece, because I’ve been thinking a lot about coincidence in the past year.

The word apophenia describes the condition where one makes connections between unrelated things. Usually, the word describes conspiracy theorists. But, in a more mundane sense, I think there’s something special about how we make connections between ideas. Even very tenuous ones.

I spent some time thinking about this last year when my friend Liam came to visit. I met Liam in East Africa, and we went through one of the most extraordinary experiences of our lives together, traveling across Lake Victoria to find a mysterious castle on an island called Banda. The underlying purpose of our trip was to deposit a blessed Buddhist relic in the Lake (on behalf of a respected Buddhist teacher), which we did.

In the Aeon article, the author explores the interpretations of coincidence, from Jung’s pseudoscientific theory of synchronicity to statistician’s rationalizing. The author says he tends toward a rational view, but retains a sense of awe about some of the stranger experiences of the improbable.

My experience traveling to Banda Island with Liam abounded with improbability, from mild serendipity to shocking happenstance. Here’s a survey:

  • Liam and I shared a dorm in Nairobi, but didn’t get to know each other. We then met again weeks later at a hostel in Kampala, when we became friends and decided to travel to Banda Island together.
  • On our way to Banda Island, we almost got stranded on a deserted island but were saved when a friend called to warn us just as we were preparing to disembark our boat onto the island.
  • After several days of failed attempts to get passage across the Lake to Banda Island, as we sat stranded on a remote road, two motorcycle taxis suddenly appeared. They drove us to a nearby port town, where a man spontaneously approached, unprompted, us and offered us a boat to take us to the island.
  • On Banda Island, we made friends with a woman from Vancouver, named Allison. More than a decade later, Allison moved to a small town in Nova Scotia, where her downstairs neighbor was the mother of my childhood best friend. Looking through Allison’s phone, my friend’s mother was shocked to find a photo Allison had taken of me in Africa, which she immediately forwarded to my dad.
  • Months after I left Banda, I went to visit Liam at his home in England and stayed with him for two nights before flying home to Canada from Heathrow. On the final day, between leaving Liam’s house and going to Heathrow, I went to meet up with a friend, Claire, who happened to be in London that day. Eight years later I married Claire.
  • A year after Claire and I met in London, we went back to London as a new couple. For our first date, we went to Stonehenge on the equinox, where we slept among the stones and then watched the sunrise over them in the morning. We left Stonehenge and went to London, where we met Liam, who arranged for us to stay for free in a friend’s dorm. That friend was Ellie, who Liam would date for many years and bring on a trip back to Banda Island.
  • After Liam and Ellie broke up, Liam was doing humanitarian work in South Sudan, where he met and fell in love with a Canadian woman named Laura. It turned out that Laura went to the same small university as me Claire. We had mutual friends and the same professors, and she and Claire graduated together.
  • Last year, Liam and Laura came to visit me and Claire in Glasgow. It wasn’t until Liam arrived that he told me he had actually also lived in Glasgow. Doing desk work for the government here made him realize he wanted to work in the field, so he got a job in South Sudan.
  • In the course of catching up for the first time in many years, I mentioned that I had worked at a Buddhist magazine called Shambhala Sun, and Liam interrupted me. “Is that ‘Shambhala’ like the book?” he asked. “Which book?” I said. “This book.” He pulled up the sleeve of his shirt to reveal a tattoo of a symbol from Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior, a book written by the founder of the magazine I had worked for. Shocked, I pulled up my sleeve to reveal my own tattoo of another symbol from the book. It turned out that Liam’s uncle was a garbage man in New York City who collected books out of the trash and gave them to Liam. Before leaving on a humanitarian trip, Liam picked up Shambhala out of a pile of books from his uncle. He read it one strange day when he was stranded in a burnt-out gas station in the middle of the Sudanese desert while he oversaw a peace deal that hinged on repairing a Land Rover.
  • Talking to Laura about South Sudan, I suddenly asked Laura “Do you know Kalina?”, based on an odd feeling that they would know each other, only informed by the fact that Kalina was another Canadian who had done development work in East Africa. “Yeah, I do,” said Laura. She explained that she and Kalina had become friends when they were both working in Juba.

This doesn’t all describe coincidence, but it does feel like it describes something quite exceptional.

I have a similar, those less incredible, connection to a place, which I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Weinbergspark is a wonderful park in central Berlin. It’s out of the way, bounded on two sides by buildings, so it’s easy to miss. It sits on a slope, with a playground at the top, a pond at the bottom, and a garden along one side. In the middle is a grassy area that fills with sunshine and picnickers in the evening.

  • On one side of Weinbergspark is the hostel where I stayed when I visited Berlin for the first time in 2009. I was there with my brother and sister, and we spent lots of time sitting on the swings in the playground. After moving to Berlin in 2018, Claire and I were searching hard for an apartment. We applied and got rejected for one — which was normal in a city where apartment viewings regularly had a line out of the door — but the rental company invited us to view another available apartment in another neighborhood. That viewing only had three interested parties, including ourselves, and we were shocked when the company quickly accepted our application and gave us the apartment. It just so happened that it was around the corner from Weinbergspark.
  • Before moving to the new apartment, we had drinks with neighbors from our previous apartment. One of them mentioned that he had a close friend from Canada. “What’s his name?” I asked, obligatorily. I was shocked when it was the only other Canadian I knew in Berlin — a friend from adolescence named Matt. After moving, Claire and I were walking past Weinbergspark when I heard my name on the wind. I turned around to see Matt. We chatted happily for five minutes and learned that he lived in another part of the city, but was in the neighborhood to meet a friend. That was our only encounter while I lived there.
  • A former coworker from Canada, named Lauria, moved to Berlin while I was there, and we became friends. Lauria lived in another part of the city, but she was excited when she got a job at a printing studio, which happened to be across the street from Weinbergspark. We would picnic in the park with Lauria and her boyfriend after work.
  • One day in the spring, while walking through the Weinbergspark, Claire and I saw a grey heron standing in the path. Claire approached it with her camera, and it calmly let her take photos.
  • While it’s not a coincidence, Weinbergspark had chess boards where I played many games with friends and an ice cream shop where Claire and I often went for excellent ice cream. These experiences cemented the park as a very special place to me.

Mine and Claire’s apartment on Rue Oberkampf in Paris was also infused with serendipity.

  • When we set a date for our move to Paris, we posted on Facebook looking for an apartment, and something extremely improbable happened: a friend responded that he had an apartment in our price range that was available the very day we needed it.
  • After moving to Paris, I changed careers and I was looking for a new job. I would settle for anything, but I happened to find an old Facebook post soliciting applications to work at a company. That lead yielded my dream job, working on technical content at a CMS. (It may sound obscure and boring, but I had actually already applied to one such position years prior before I had the relevant qualifications.) It turned out that the company (of which type there are only a handful in the world) was three blocks from our apartment.
  • Our apartment building had a cozy bar on the ground floor. While working in Paris, I helped produce a video interview with a famous French web developer. We filmed at his three favorite spots in Paris, which included the bar in my building.
  • When we left, we had a mutual friend with the person who moved into our apartment.

Banda Island, Weinbergspark, and Rue Oberkampf are all places that I will always regard as special and somewhat magical. As the author of the Aeon article writes, it’s completely feasible that all of these coincidences are random. It’s true that “extremely improbable events are commonplace.”

But maybe there’s just something special — maybe even supernatural — about the meaning that we derive from the improbable. Magic that we perceive is still magic. In travel, I’ve discovered these sorts of connections everywhere I go. We’re all searching for meaningful connection, and it feels like real magic when you discover a connection where you previously thought there was none.

© Sam Littlefair, 2023