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Tales from the back of the eyelids

Metaphysics

Overview:

  • Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy concerned with reality and existence.
  • Areas of metaphysical enquiry include the nature of consciousness and the mind, matter and objects, space and time, and the origin of the universe.

Winter on the sun is cool and pleasant, not at all like the summer when it is fiercely hot and quite unbearable. In the autumn and spring temperatures are unpredictable but are usually comfortable as long as you stay underneath the canopy. However, whatever time of year you decide to go, you need to wear sunglasses with an effective ultraviolet light filter, because sunlight can cause irrepairable damage to the eyes. Always take plenty of drinking water too.

How did I get there? At first it was a bit confusing. I hadn't a clue as to where I was. On top of that I couldn't see anything. Everything around me was black. I grasped at the air and ran up against a wall. I searched for a light switch with the palms of my hands. Nothing. I took a couple of paces to either side and felt around. Nothing.

So I began to move along the wall's length. With my right forearm sliding on the smooth surface and my left hand stretched out in front of me, I took one hesitant step after another. I walked for what must have been miles. On and on. "This must be the biggest room in the world," I said to myself. "Won't this wall ever end?"

But eventually the wall did end. My arm came to ridge. It was the edge of a door. I groped around for a handle and found one. I turned it and threw the door open. A brilliant light shone in. I stood transfixed, dazzled by the glare.

When I had become accustomed to the brightness, I saw that I was at the top of half a dozen stone steps. At the bottom of the steps, stretching into the distance, was a flat bed of fine white sand. Sticking out of the sand, also as far as I could see, were long wooden poles, which reached at least ten metres into the air and which were arranged in a regular grid, with the rows wide apart. Strung over them was a hemp canopy, providing a vast protective ceiling.

I walked down the steps, took off my shoes and buried my feet in the soft sand. In winter, down here on the surface of the sun, it was cool and pleasant. Wild flames were raging only a few metres above my head, but the canopy shielded me from their ferocity, keeping the weather underneath perfectly mild. How wonderful it was to be on the sun! There wasn't another soul in sight: it was beautifully peaceful! I lay down on the ground, put my arm under my head and, with gentle shadows flickering across my eyelids, went to sleep.

*

The next thing I knew I was back in the shoe shop. The bell had woken me up: someone had just come in. It was mid-afternoon and I had been taking a nap in the storeroom. It had been a bad Friday. We had had hardly any customers all day and although my colleague had sold one pair of shoes, I personally hadn't sold any. I hate days like that.

Anyway, when I came out to the front of the shop a very large man was examining shoes on the shelf. He said he liked a pair he saw in the window. Unfortunately, though, when I went back into the storeroom I found I didn't have any of that type in his size. We did have similar shoes in grey but when I showed them to him he shook his head.

We looked at other kinds of office shoes and the man sat down and tried a few pairs on. I knew we were going to have a problem with size. The shop had a good assortment but we had only a small stock in XXL. As the customer himself ruefully explained, he was a big man with big feet and he always found it difficult to find shoes which were both the right size and the right style. Slip ons and zip ups were definitely out. So too were bicoloureds, brogues and anything with buckles or tags. Some of the first batch, though, were nearly good. The ones he really liked squeezed his toes too much; another pair were a little too pointed and yet another would have been fine without the silver logo stuck to one side ( "Can't that be taken off?" He almost pleaded. I never lie to customers.)

The man inspected more of the shoes on display. Like most people he was more interested in the cheaper range but as his options dwindled he began to consider the expensive ones as well. Soon there were open shoe boxes scattered over the floor and while I ran back and forth to the storeroom, the man walked up and down, looking hopefully in the mirror and at his feet.

But nothing at all fitted the bill. Both of us were both almost in despair. Then, after more than an hour, something like a miracle happened. I found a pair of black lace ups in the storeroom which were the right size and which I felt sure was exactly what was wanted. The gentleman put them on. They were a bit pricier than he had hoped, he said. He walked around in them. Then suddenly he looked happier. He liked them a lot, he declared: he would take them.

A wave of relief - or perhaps more accurately, a wave of joy - swept over me. I had doubted that I would sell anything but in the end the effort had paid off. It was moments like these that made the job worthwhile.

The man studied his shoes again after he sat down to take them off. At first he looked at them admiringly, then a worried look crossed his face. Although he liked them a lot, he said, he wasn't sure about his wife. Would she like them too? That was the most important thing, because if she hated them, he couldn't wear them. He couldn't decide what to do. If he bought a pair of shoes he couldn't wear his wife would be furious with him. He looked at the shoes wistfully and said sorrowfully that he had better not take the risk.

As you can imagine, I was devastated. Where was his wife? I asked. Couldn't she come here now to look at the shoes? He shook his head sadly. She was only about two streets away but she was working in her office and couldn't leave. We both gazed at the shoes which were still on the man's feet. That's when we both brightened with an idea. We thought of it at the same time, although the customer came out with it first.

Would I mind, he said, if he popped out to see his wife and showed her the shoes? It would take only fifteen minutes at the most and then he could buy them with confidence. Even though he was sure she would like them, it was better to be safe than sorry. I completely agreed: I felt quite sure she was going to like them and indeed it was better to be safe than sorry. And of course, that was the only way I was going to get a sale that day.

Just as the big man walked out the door, my fellow sales assistant came out of the storeroom where I guess he had been dozing. He looked at the man's old shoes on the floor and then out of the window.

"Did you just let that man take shoes out of the shop without paying for them?" He asked agitatedly.

I nodded confidently and tried to explain but before I had managed to get more than a couple of words out, he started to scream at me.

"You fool!" He shouted. "What have you done? That's the last we'll see of those shoes."

I was aghast. I don't like being called a fool and I like even less realising that I am one. The moment my colleague said it I knew he was right. I really was a complete fool. That was the last we would see of those shoes. What the hell had got into me?

I rushed out of the shop, knowing that it was probably too late. I ran down the street one way, turned around and sped back the other way. Nowhere: he was gone.

I slowed down and, more out of desperation than out of any real hope of finding the scoundrel, I began to peer into the shops to see if I could spot him.

It was then, as I was walking up and down vainly searching for the man, that I noticed something strange. The street was the high street of a town called Rayleigh which is in Essex, not too far from where I used to teach when I lived in England. It's a pleasant street in an old market town (unfortunately somewhat spoilt by 20th century development), set on a slope with a Norman church at the top of the hill. The strange thing, though, was not the street; it was that I was in it. The street did not belong to the present time and place of my life. I now live in Prague in the middle of Europe – what on earth was I doing in Rayleigh?

That made me think about how I used to struggle with the idea of location when I was a child. Could other places really continue to exist when I was no longer there? I used to find that hard to believe: it would mean all sorts of incredible things. It would mean the Austrian lake where we used to spend our summers was still somewhere miles away even though the holidays were over and I was sitting back at my desk at school. It would mean that other places exist at this moment in time, even though I might not be aware of them. Imagine all the lives being lived in those places! Perhaps not even on Earth – at this very minute on planets millions of light years away other beings may be thinking in exactly the same way as I am now: that although we have a common bond of thought we'll never know of each other's existence.

For a long time I had dismissed such ideas. They were the result of childish exuberance at my discovery of the marvel of being. Now, on this street in Rayleigh, for the first time in my adult life I understood that they weren't childish at all. If other places existed at the same time, then why wouldn't the past and future also exist in the present? The truth is that place and time are illusions. Rayleigh in the past is no different to Prague today, nor indeed to any other location at any time. Space and time are meaningless concepts. Physicists stumbled upon this reality many decades ago: the original order was without dimensions. It existed (assuming exist is the correct word) before the Big Bang and still exists now outside the limits of our universe.

Would I like to know what nothingness feels like? I don't know who asked this question. There was no booming voice nor indeed any words at all. All I know is that I was being presented with an opportunity – an opportunity that perhaps no other human has had. Did I accept or reject? Without hesitation I accepted.

Next I was in zero dimensional existence. A state without time or space. Obviously, it is impossible to describe. It was peace, a hazy light and an idea. That's all I can say. Did I experience death during life? I doubt it. If death feels like anything at all, it would not feel so sublime.

Or would it?

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