This week, my family caught an episode of the Discovery Channel's "Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking" on the subject of time travel. As it turns out, there's a fundamental paradox that prevents time travel to the past (it's not the old one about going back and killing your grandpa), but time travel to the future is possible by a couple of far-fetched, but not altogether impossible methods.
One — the less likely of the two scenarios explored in the show — involves orbiting close to the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Time runs slower in the presence of extremely high gravity, such as you'd encounter near the most massive thing in our galaxy. So you get in your spaceship, fly 26,000 light-years, park in orbit around the black hole, where time runs about half as fast as it does outside the gravitational space-time distortion caused by the black hole, then turn tail and fly home, 156 trillion miles again, and you'll be younger than you would have been, had you stayed home. That is, your descendants, maybe five or ten thousand generations later, will be younger than they would have been, had you stayed home. Not too practical.
Actually, I think we experience something like this in our daily lives, without all that space travel science fiction.
From time to time, we experience pain of one sort or another. Break an ankle, twist in just the wrong way while picking up a box in the garage, fight with that really, really annoying relative or even lose a child, a spouse or a marriage, and you may feel yourself fall into a deep well of pain where time seems to slow to a crawl.
That kind of pain can become the center of our universe, a supermassive black hole around which everything in our lives revolves, sucking all of our light and energy into itself. Some get too close, are pulled across the event horizon, never to be seen in their original form again. Others of us have avoided that end, but still, the overwhelming force of darkness keeps us trapped — at least for a time — in its orbit.
If you've ever been in that kind of physical or emotional pain, you may also have noticed that, even in the midst of it, there were times when the presence of friends or loved ones seemed to draw you away from the dark center, bring you some much-needed light and energy, and time returned to its normal pace. In fact, such times may have seemed to fly by!
May Dr. Hawking forgive me for really bad science, but perhaps when we focus on our pain, it becomes incredibly massive, warping the fabric of space-time around us. The more we concentrate on it, the larger it looms, the more it outweighs everything around it. The closer we are to it, the more the force of its gravity stretches and slows time. It may seem, at times of extreme pain and stress, that time stands nearly still.
I'm not sure if this nutty observation has any practical application.
Then again, maybe it can remind us that we can choose to revolve around our pain, lending it more and more gravity 'til it turns into a black hole that threatens to suck us in, or we can use levity to fight gravity, pull away from the center of our pain and see that the world is whizzing by around us, at normal speed, while we crawl along in our space-time well.
I remember times of laughter at Stanford Children's hospital, even as our first son, Kevin was dying nearby, when the unbearable weight and the crushing darkness of his illness and coming death seemed far away. Call it denial if you must, but that denial may have saved my sanity.
We can't always remove the sources of our pain. People die. Marriages end. Legs break. But we can fight the force of gravity and find a higher orbit where we can have, if not the "time of our lives", then at least time for our lives.