“Story of Your Life and Others”—by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang’s story, which Jack recommended, is an exploration of a TSK-kind of experience in which an alien language expresses a non-linear and non-sequential relationship to time.  Utterance is a kind of calligraphy in which the first brush stroke already portends the full communication.  Not just in the way that “See Spot run” embraces an entire action, but more like Leonardo De Vinci seeing a statue before his first chisel stroke.  This story expresses a TSK-compatible vision of how awareness and coherence do not require linearity or even motion.

In Chiang’s story, terrestrial linguists and physicists are striving to communicate with aliens in a language which conveys a reality–coherent and simultaneous–that does not require subjects and verbs, nor objects impacting other objects in ordered sequences.

Fermat’s Principle (an actual law in terrestrial mathematics) is invoked in Chiang’s story to present a mystery beyond causality.  Fermat’s principle observes that the path taken by light as it travels through air into water (or any two mediums), is the path that minimizes the time taken.  The angle of refraction of a light ray entering water can account for the observed shift in direction (like a boat hitting a patch of weeds on one side and getting pulled off course), but how much more interesting it is to discover, reading this story, that the angle of refraction is exactly the angle that creates a journey of shortest possible time from light source to a point beneath the water’s surface.  Any other path would take longer.  This fastest journey seems to require that the future is present (known) before the light ray sets out (as opposed to being the consequence of variable density): more like a dancer’s performance than a linear sequence of steps.  The minimized travel time does not seem the outcome of any concatenation of causes and their effects, but rather seems a mysterious feature of physical nature.

I feel that TSK influences how time can manifest in individual daily life.  I seem more able to embrace whatever arises as an opportunity to jump in–like a light ray taking the shortest path across a bumpy field of varying densities—where goals and intermediate steps are brush strokes drawn forth by the canvas on which they appear.  A first step joins a journey already underway.  Perhaps the gesture we make in our moment of birth begins a journey in time that expresses knowledge of the whole.  But then we easily forget the narrative arc of our own lifetime and take our lines from pre-printed texts written by others.

About Michael Gray

I first started studying TSK in the mid 1980's and have since attended a number of retreats and workshops at the Nyingma Institute, in both TSK and Buddhist themes. I participated in the life-changing Human Development Training Program in 1991, and upon returning to Albuquerque co-founded an organization, Friends in Time (with a friend who has Lou Gehrig's Disease), which continues to serve people with similiar disabilities. I contributed an essay to "A New Way of Being"--the last one in the book--in which I describe how learning to honor who I have been has broadened and deepened my openness to present experience. I live in New Mexico with my wife and two sons.
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1 Response to “Story of Your Life and Others”—by Ted Chiang

  1. David Filippone says:

    Hi Michael,
    I like your summary much better than my quick and down attempt. You obviously took the time to dive deeper with your delineation to articulate the alien’s way of seeing the potential first, and then to simply observe how time plays its way in space. A race of Rinpoches. :-)

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