My life had teetered on a precipice for so long that I hardly knew how to act now that everything had finally come crashing down. It’s not true to say that I had no choice in the matter, that I was simply a victim of circumstance. Had I done one thing differently the entire story might have changed. Instead, I sat back and let it all happen.
There’s a psychological phenomenon I read about once. A man standing at the foot of a hill sees a large boulder come loose at the peak and begin rolling down the hillside. End over end it tumbles, picking up speed. It seems to be heading more or less toward where the man is standing. The hill is tall, and there’s still a long time before the boulder can roll all the way down, plenty of time for the man to move to a different spot where the boulder is less likely to land. He can’t go backwards, away from the hill; not far behind him is a cliff, and a 300-foot drop to the sea below. But the path snaking around the foot of the hill is open to him and free of debris. He can move to his left or his right. He can walk, or he can run. Options exist.
Only the man doesn’t move. First of all, he’s not sure the boulder is actually rolling toward the spot where he’s standing. The boulder is still so far up the hillside, you see, and its trajectory is hard to determine. It looks like it’s headed toward him, but who knows? What if he takes off running and goes the wrong way? What if he inadvertently puts himself in the boulder’s path, when he could have just stayed where he was and been safe? So he waits, trying to get a better read on which direction the boulder will choose. Sometimes it seems to be veering left, only to glance off an outcrop and turn back to the right, or vice versa. The man waits some more, thinking that once the boulder is past the rocky upper-slope and reaches the grassy area further down its path will become clear. But even then, the terrain is uneven and the boulder still far enough away that he can’t be certain it’s actually heading toward him. He decides to play it safe and wait right where he is, observing and analyzing. The boulder keeps rolling, picking up speed.
Halfway down the slope. The man waits.
Three-quarters of the way down. The man waits.
At last the man can see how fast the boulder is moving, not rolling so much as bounding down the hillside, skipping tens of feet at a time. The dreadful realization sinks in that there’s no longer time to move. The boulder is approaching so rapidly that even if the man immediately starts running as fast as he can in either direction it will be upon him before he can clear the area. The only thing he can do is wait where he is, make himself as small as possible and pray the boulder misses him.
The man crouches and tucks himself into a ball, like an armadillo taking refuge inside its shell. He says a prayer to a God he may or may not believe exists. It’s an unpolished prayer, which is the best kind – an unqualified request for help, no empty promises or words of praise. God, if there is such a being, presumably has no time for artifice, being omniscient and all. “Give it to me straight” – I don’t believe that line appears anywhere in a major religious text, but it should. It’s a nice foundational principle for a religion. A God of Honesty. Truth as a deity. I think I’m on to something here. But then I’ve thought that before.
By the way, the man was crushed by the boulder.
That was the point of the story. Sometimes we’re so afraid of taking the wrong action that we take no action at all. And that, in the end, is what kills us. Psychologists can vouch for this. They invented the anecdote after all, not me.
I did add the part about the prayer, though. Strunk and White would call that a “literary flourish”.
Strunk and White wrote ‘The Elements of Style’, a handy little book about how to write a sentence, and then how best to put one sentence after another. Don’t get fancy, is Strunk and White’s advice. Don’t beat around the bush. The cat killed the mouse. The mouse was not killed by the cat. This is advice our theoretical God can get behind.
Unless of course it’s the mouse you care about, and you don’t give one whit about the cat. There are exceptions to every rule. The man was crushed by the boulder. The boulder did not crush the man. They were not zealots, Strunk and White. They sympathized with the human condition.
I sympathize too. How can you not, once you know the truth? The ‘Truth’, I’m talking about now, the one and only God, in this universe anyway. And the truth is that everything that has happened and everything that will happen is happening right now. Not a new concept, but why would you think the truth would be something new? Quite the opposite – it has always been and always will be. There are no choices. Everything has already been written.
Which undercuts my earlier anecdote, now that I think about it. The man was always going to be crushed by the boulder. The boulder was always going to crush the man. He didn’t run because he couldn’t. He never ran, and so he never will run.
How do I know this? Aliens told me, in a dream.
I know how that sounds.
But I don’t need to convince you. Theoretical physicists are already coming to the same conclusion. They call it the ‘block-universe’. Psychologists will get there eventually. Then they can update their anecdotes. They probably already have, somewhere in the block-universe. Let’s hope so. There’s only so long you can go on telling the same old stories.
I mention that to them whenever they come to visit me. Twice a week, I think it is, or maybe three times. Time has a way of losing its meaning here, but then time has no meaning, as I’ve already told you.
Anyway, the psychologists come to my room every so often and sit and talk with me. There are four or five altogether, but two principals – Dr. Susan, a middle-aged woman with a blond bob who looks like someone’s childless aunt, and my favorite, Dr. Steve, balding and bespectacled and speaking in an accent that has so far defied easy classification. Is it English, I wonder? Scandinavian? Transatlantic? I must remember to broach the subject someday, when Dr. Steve’s not in one of his moods.
Mostly the doctors ask me questions, sometimes open-ended and sometimes pointed, but always probing. Whereas Dr. Susan’s manner evinces a sort of pity for what she takes to be my broken condition, Dr. Steve can barely contain his condescension. “Is it your contention,” he spluttered, eyes agog, to provide just one example, “based on this philosophy you’ve espoused, that you had no agency in your actions and are therefore completely free of blame?” I thrill at his scoffing tone, the inherent challenge behind it. How do I explain the truth to him in a way he’ll understand? I am wholly innocent, yet guilty. The things I did I have always done, and will continue to do until the universe’s end. I am like the man standing at the bottom of the hill, and the boulder is like BB, whom I’ll tell you about in a moment.
That was a metaphor, though not a good one. If you’re going to use a metaphor, make it count. That would be Strunk and White’s advice.
I need to listen more.