From Star Trek Voyager, Season 4, Episode 12: “The Mortal Coil” (1997)
Like most teenagers, I thought I was immortal. I placed my life in great danger several times — mostly while hurtling my dad’s Jeep Cherokee down the highway at highly illegal speeds — to prove it. And I’m still here. See? Immortal.
I’m a fan of the great science fiction films and television (I’m talking about “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” here), so my contemplations on immortality were not limited just to a feeling of youthful vigor. I considered it literally, sometimes while listening to Enya. I used to say this to people at parties every chance I got: “Just because no one has ever not died doesn’t mean that it is impossible.” Nobody seemed to agree. But I felt in my heart — even when not high — that there was a way to escape death. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.
Carl Jung talks about the acquisition of knowledge in this videotaped interview from late in his life: “I don’t believe,” he says. “I must have a reason for a certain hypothesis. Either I know a thing and then I know it… I don’t need to believe it.”
Carl Jung, (circa 1959)
The evidence Jung presents to explain why he believes — I mean, knows — that there is a “psychical existence beyond time and space” is that people have dreams about the future. In his memoir, Jung gives an example from his own life of how he had a vision while on a train that “the whole sea turned to blood” in the weeks leading up to the start of the First World War.
I don’t know how I feel about Jung’s evidence. I mean, I could come up with some other explanations for these things other than an existence outside of time and space. They could simply be coincidences. And isn’t there always bloodshed happening somewhere in the world? But this doesn’t stop me from agreeing with him that death is not the end. I suppose everyone just has to find their own evidence. As a teen, I had no data to support my own immortality theory, but I have been amassing some explanations over the years.
My current idea is that eternal life can be glimpsed if you consider how time is experienced as slow and fast irrespective of its length. When you go on a trip to a foreign location, for instance, the first day feels like it lasts much longer than a day. You can’t quite put your finger on how long it feels — a week, a month? — but it has an epic quality. There’s something about the novelty of strange streets and sights that makes each second of the day stretch out. But then as the trip goes on, it seems we only have a certain capacity for that kind of intensity of experience and the days start to feel shorter and shorter until by the end, as you settle into a routine and stop gazing at every inch of the world as you pass it, the days feel about the same as the ones back home (The exception is those odds days back home that for whatever reason — tragic or triumphant — take on a similarly epic length).
Just the other day, I saw a movie about fractals that gave me a physical picture of how this might happen. I should mention first of all that I was shocked to find out that fractals were still being used in cutting-edge science (Maybe others know this — I sometimes live in a cave). Anyhow, I hadn’t thought about fractals since I was an immortal teenager wearing t-shirts with fractal prints on them.
A fractal is always the same shape. In other words, when you look at it, it will always look the same. It doesn’t change. But when you look into a fractal, you realize that it is never fully recognizable. Its iterations go on eternally so that you could keep looking into the shape forever (or until you died, if you’re one of those people who do that).
Similarly, a second in time seems to have a beginning and an end when you are looking at it, but if you look into it, its center is a broken ground from which sprouts an unending flowering of possibilities.
Jung almost died from a heart attack in 1944. As he lay in his hospital bed, he had a series of drug-induced near death visions. In one, while floating in space, Jung came to a giant black rock with a door, inside of which sat a Hindu in a white robe. He describes the experience in his memoir:
“As I approached the steps leading up to the entrance into the rock, a strange thing happened: I had the feeling that everything was being sloughed away; everything I aimed at or wished for or thought, the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence, fell away or was stripped from me — an extremely painful process. Nevertheless something remained; it was as if I now carried along with me everything I had ever experienced or done, everything that had happened around me. I might also say: it was with me, and I was it.”
When Jung recovered, he says he became depressed being back in what he called the “prison” of real life. Calling to mind the plot of “The Matrix,” he wrote, “Although my belief in the world returned to me, I have never since entirely freed myself of the impression that this life is a segment of existence which is enacted in a three-dimensional boxlike universe especially set up for it.”
I think what Jung experienced was a true experience of time, where Jung himself — not a boxlike abstract concept (i.e., a minute) — is the unit.
If you view subjective experience as the measure of a moment, a minute or a second in time does not just have a length, but also a width. The width is the unlimited exploration of consciousness available during that time which, as it fractalizes outward and inward, becomes so great (eternal, actually) so as to make death feel almost non-existent.
I say almost because no matter how far the spiraling possibilities reach, there is still that black nothingness in the center of the fractal towards which every one of those possibilities reaches but never touches. Could that be death? I have to admit that I don’t know yet what’s down there in that hole.
I suppose I’ll only know when I die, if that happens.
– Micah Toub