“Time is an illusion.” – Hue, from Avatar: The Last Airbender, “The Swamp”
I don’t know about you, but I feel like the days this past month have been going by very slowly… and yet also very fast. Like how I imagine getting sucked into a black hole might feel. I read somewhere as a kid that when something gets sucked into a black hole, the object gets impossibly stretched, so that one part of it might be going incredibly fast, while the other end of it is going a snail’s pace, but anyone observing it from a distance will only see it stuck forever in place at the edge of the black hole. Which sounds an awful lot like our collective situation at the moment.
This is why I love science fiction and fantasy. Like a black hole, they take our familiar world and upend it. We see dilemmas from a new angle, or see people in a way we hadn’t imagined them before. We can ponder how we ourselves might react in a given character’s situation. Sci-fi and fantasy create puzzles and ask us the tough questions, like “whose reality is true?” or “does time exist?” Conundrums like these fuel my imagination, and being able to explore these questions in a fictional world helps me understand my own reality a little better, especially when our present reality seems increasingly like a dystopian sci-fi novel itself.
Staying at home during this pandemic has gotten me wondering more than I usually do about our perception of time. I recently started watching Downton Abbey (yes, I’m WAY late to jump on the bandwagon) and interestingly, Season 2 deals with the 1918 flu pandemic. Of course, the TV show is fictional, but it’s still a bit surreal to be watching these characters portray life as it was 100 years ago and see all the similarities to the present day, right down to the pandemic we’re going through now. It’s interesting how much has changed, and yet, fundamentally, how many things have remained the same. Does time really change us? Or are we humans just the same as we’ve ever been, no matter what century one looks at?
I also started re-watching Avatar: The Last Airbender now that it’s on Netflix, and had another sort of time loop moment. I was obsessed with this show when it first aired during my high school years and must have watched all three seasons at least a dozen times (okay, probably way more), but my obsession (and probably most other fans’ if the scarcity of posts in the old Facebook groups was any indication) had gone dormant in recent years. With the show’s release on Netflix this past month, those groups were back at full steam. Sitting in my apartment scrolling through the flood of new and old Avatar memes on my Facebook feed brought back memories of younger me, browsing for hours through Google pages on my family’s shared desktop computer, fawning over all the fan art and exclusive content I could find, not to mention the inside jokes and shared agony of waiting for the next episode with my siblings.
Then the protests began here in the U.S., and I was thrown into yet another time loop, watching history unfold and repeat itself simultaneously: viewing the present protests through hopeful eyes, yet knowing the outcome of protests past, and also wondering whether future generations will view these events as successes or as more failures. The struggle to overcome systemic racism and inequality has been going on probably since the beginning of time, and it’s disheartening to see that the human race is still struggling to overcome it, despite so many other protests and small victories throughout history. It is heartbreaking to see the pain that my sisters and brothers have gone/are going through, understanding that pain, yet feeling helpless to do anything to change it. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you grasp the enormity and complexity of the problem and the work that needs to be done to fix it. And yet…
Watching all the marches around the U.S., and especially around the world, made me realize that although the problem is complex, there are more than enough of us to do the work. I began to think, what if previous attempts fell flat because we, perhaps unconsciously, put all our faith in only one person or one small group to make the changes? What if this time we realize that it’s up to each and every one of us to shoulder the burden and actively work
for the rest of our lives to speak out in our workplaces, in our communities, to learn about each other and lift each other up so that meaningful change finally happens? This has always been a worldwide issue, and after being affected by the pandemic on a global scale, maybe we’ve realized how the issues of one society are equally the issues of all the rest. I know now that I may be one person, and my contribution may be small, but my story is part of the larger narrative of humanity, and I can affect the outcome.
* * *
Experiencing all these realities within the space of a month has definitely felt like being sucked into a black hole. All of these timelines and more are crashing into each other and it’s a surreal period to be living through. This must be one of those moments in time referred to as a nexus: a turning point when out of the chaos a new path is born. That’s why I believe stories are important. In this nexus we have not only the histories and myths of our ancestors to draw upon, we also have the dreams of our past selves, the struggles of our parents, and even the hopes of future generations, all moving through time via the fables and histories and proverbs that are told and handed down to us. All of these narratives, true or embellished, help us understand ourselves, understand the world around us, and most importantly, connect us, if only we listen.
I don’t know where we’ll go from here and I don’t know if we’ll like the changes that are coming, but I do know that stories will be there to guide us. Because if stories help connect us, that also means they give us the ability to transcend time, and when we realize that, perhaps we as the human race can finally move beyond that black hole.
I’ve listed some resources below that I’ve found helpful in learning about perspectives other than my own. Let’s work each and every day—not just when the topic is trending—to effect sustainable change by lifting each other up and learning, always.
- Anti-Racism Resources
- The 1619 Project
- Where Are Our Black Boys on Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Novel Covers?
- Anti-Racist Reading List
- LatinX Reading List