Oftentimes I find the concept of “eternity” difficult to comprehend. Suppose you’re a painter, with what colors do you paint eternity? Suppose you’re a songwriter, in what chords, what progressions, what tonality do you compose?
It’s just over midnight when I decide to have a short walk before sleeping. I find all the boys are sound asleep except one.
“That your wife?”
“Uh, no, sir,” he replies while swiftly tucking a photograph of a beautiful young lady inside his pocket.
“You’re a lucky guy.”
“I guess so.”
“How long have you two been together?”
“Wow. That’s quite a long time.”
“Not without our ups and downs.” He chuckles nervously.
“Have some trouble sleepin’ in the dirt?”
“No, sarge, it’s just I don’t feel like sleeping already.”
I sat down next to him. It was full moon and I could see his weary face clearly. There’s a momentary silence as his mind begins to wander.
“I really miss her,” he says, out of nowhere. Then another silence follows.
“Do you think the war will soon be over, sir?”
“I don’t know.” I know that sort of answer would not give him relief but I honestly don’t know. Personally, I’m tired of this war.
His face becomes solemn. “When I go back to Jakarta, I will propose to her.”
“I’ll cut your throat if you don’t invite me.”
He chuckles again. This young man has a contagious kind of jolly and warm chuckle which immediately lifts your mood up.
“Tell me, do you believe in heaven and hell, private?”
“Yeah, I do. What of it, sir?” He turns his head towards me, interested in my unexpected question.
“I never get it.” I pause for a moment. “It’s funny, though, how temporary our lives here on Earth seem to be.” He looks intently at me, waiting to hear my next sentences.
“This war makes me think again, deep inside. I’ve seen plenty of deaths already. A grenade falls, bang! You’re dead. Just weeks ago we’re hit by an ambush. We were eating! There was this man, he hadn’t even finished sayin’ his prayer yet.”
“It’s horrible,” he says. He looks upset. Now he turns his head back, looking to the darkness in front of us. The darkness seems to stare back, as if mocking our complete inability in knowing when the war will be over.
“Sarge, what if this war won’t be over? What if… this war continues forever?”
“Oh, you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, kid. What’s ‘forever’? What do you mean by that?”
“Uh, like, forever, sir.”
“I can’t make sense of ‘forever’. Guess that’s why I have trouble believin’ in heaven and hell.”
“I too, sir, have a difficulty in making sense of it. But dare I say to you, it might help if you look at it from another perspective.”
“Yeah. I mean, ‘forever’ is almost crazy, right? You have this stretch of time,” he stretches his arms wide open, “and it has no beginning and no end. But then again, if you think about it, there is no time there.”
He is silent for a while, trying to find a way to communicate his idea. “Oh, now I’m blabbering.”
“No, no. Please continue.”
“Are you sure? My friends would be bored whenever I start to talk about things like this.” He chuckles again.
“Right. So you have this concept of a place where there is no time. How can a man make sense of a place without time? It’s very puzzling! We’re so used to the concept of time. All our lives, we cannot escape from time.
“But I try to approach it from the other direction. In my attempt to make sense of the ‘forever’, I’d think first of the ‘never’. The two are somewhat similar, in a sense that they’re both timeless. There is no time also in the ‘never’. I’d ponder about things that hasn’t happened yet, and extrapolate it so that it would never happen. Like, what if we’d never land on Mars, or… or, what if I would never marry her. Well, that knocks my brain!”
We look again into the darkness. Sometimes I have the feeling that I would never see peace again. This war has been going for three years I almost forget my previous life. Experiencing so many horrors sets a new normal in my mind.
“And then I’d compare those images of ’never’ with images of ‘ever’: the image of me living in Mars, for example. Or, the image of my wedding day. Well, even though ‘ever’ isn’t exactly the same as ‘forever’, but it helps, you know.”
Now it’s me who chuckle. “Funny. I compare the images of war and peace side by side. I can vividly imagine this war going on and on and on, but it just no longer makes sense to me that we can have eternal peace. Guess I’ve been here for too long.”
“Uh, in our original context of heaven and hell, it does make sense, sir. If I’m asked to imagine a place where there is torture forever, I cannot do that. But if I am to picture a place where no one can ever see Peace and Love, well, I can do that. Same goes for the opposite.”
The darkness in front of us is pitch black. It is a terrible thing to have no light at all. I get up, quietly thanking in my downtrodden heart for the full moon above us.
“It’s a helpful technique, sarge,” says he, with a cordial smile on his face.
“It is. Go to sleep, private, it’s almost one.”
As I walk back, I’m reminded of a story my grandmother used to tell me when I was a little boy. It was about a really bad man who never did any good during his life. He stole, he beat people up, he lied, he cheated. As the story goes, one day he was arrested and sentenced to death. No one would even dare to think that he could be forgiven. But on his last day on Earth, he said to the man beside him, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” And as the story goes, that criminal be with him in paradise.
All of a sudden, the ‘never’ becomes ‘forever’.
I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living
Psalm 27:13, NIV
What does it mean? I used to interpret it this way: that one should wait for that goodness. That one day the goodness will arrive at last and one will be immersed in joy.
But yesterday another interpretation came to my mind: that maybe the goodness has always been there, lurking, waiting to ambush the man who is fortunate enough—by the grace of the good old Captain—to realize it. That one day his/her spiritual eyes will be opened and suddenly the beauty of that goodness appears with all of its splendour. And when that day come, one will be… surprised by joy. So surprised that at last his/her knees would have no choice but to tremble and his/her tongue confess.
Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears. Take in what is there and give no thought to what might have been there or what is somewhere else. That can come later, if it must come at all.
C. S. Lewis,