The Relativity Of Time And Back To The Past

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for June 20, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

When my cousin (related through my mother’s side of the family) came to see me recently, we talked non-stop for two days about the past, i.e., the “good old days” of our childhood. Several years ago, when six or seven of my cousins (related through my father’s side of the family) came to see me, we shared old family photographs and genealogies, and had long, exciting discussions about our forebears. Each of us saw old photos we hadn’t seen before and heard family stories previously not known. We all had this strong instinct to preserve our past.

            It seems that attitude is true of most people, — except, of course, for remembering the crazy things we did in the past we’d rather not remember. Most of our remembering is of the good and beautiful things of long ago, as we look at the era of our great grandparents (during which we did not live) through rose-colored glasses (I mean, what is so lovely about plowing a field with a mule). One of my cousins said that smelling the aroma of certain foods cooking on the stove triggers delightful memories of our grandmother’s kitchen. Not only do I have a similar response, but the aroma also fosters an urgent desire within in me to want to eat such food once again, like Grandma’s cooked homemade cheese on warm homemade bread.

            Like me, you may know people who do not care about the past at all and think it’s just a bucket of ashes. One of my friends once said he could care less about the past, he is only interested in the “now” and the future. He used to make me feel guilty about my penchant for reminiscing, until I decided I didn’t want friends who made me feel guilty about returning to the past, and now I have many friends who share my love of looking back and joyfully remembering. However, mooning over the past, avoiding the present, and dreading the future are not healthy attitudes either, — but that’s not what I’m talking about. We have to live in the present and realistically prepare for the future, but, at the same time, fully enjoy memories of the past.

            We can’t literally return to the past, can we? Well, there is the “relativity of time” versus “time” as most of us see it. In the “relativity of time,” a person can theorize that it’s possible to travel back in time to the past, but no one has ever found a way to make it physically possible, — though science fiction stories like The Time Machine by H. G. Wells in 1895 and the 1985 movie, Back to the Future, have presented fictitious ways. 

            Einstein once wrote, “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Einstein did believe that time exists, he just did not believe in a distinction between present, past, and future. Most of us believe time is flowing, and it continues flowing constantly, ever going forward. I think it was Einstein’s theory that provided the fodder for the movie, Back to the Future, wherein Marty, played by Michael J. Fox, travels to the past in a DeLorean, using plutonium (he doesn’t have any when he wants to return) as the means. The idea of traveling back in time and forward to the future is such a popular notion that the movie did so well at the box office, the producer made Back to the Future II and Back to the Future III.

            Of course, science fiction and reality are not the same thing, so we really have only one way to view the past and that is through memories, conversations with older people, and history books. That takes me back to the pleasure that many folks receive in looking back fondly at old memories. My brother used to chuckle and say after reading my newspaper columns about episodes in our childhood that I had “creative memory.” When my cousin and I reminisced recently about our maternal grandmother whom we loved so much, we pictured her as a saint, perfectly sweet and good and saintly in every way. So I reminded my cousin how Grandma would yell at the farm dogs when they didn’t behave, spouting off some really bad words in German. I knew enough German to know how bad those words were!

            Even remembering some of the naughty and ridiculous incidents and activities of the past is a joy, and if it produces laughter as well as tears and smiles, that’s a bonus! All you need is your memory (and maybe a photo album or two), — you don’t need a DeLorean!


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and the author of It Must Be the Noodles.

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