Playing Catch-up (by Billy Coffey)

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Jason is my Saturday morning Starbucks appointment, though coffee is merely a façade used to hide our true purpose. The real reason we meet is so he can catch me up on whatever it is he’s learned the previous week.

Having any sort of conversation with a college student majoring in philosophy is a bit of a crap shoot, especially when that student is just smart enough to get himself into trouble.

For instance.

Our subject of conversation today concerns the basic truths of getting by in life that are found all of the world’s religions. The Golden Rule, for instance, is found in each of the major faiths. So is the commandment to love thy neighbor and take care of the less fortunate.

And somewhere in all that commonness is the idea that we should all live in the present. That past is done and the future is beyond our knowing. All we have, all that we can sense, is the now. Jason has a problem with that. Which is not so amazing.

“We can’t live in the present,” he tells me. “It’s impossible.”

I take a sip of coffee and a deep breath, knowing I’ll need more of both before I get to leave.

“Sure we can,” I tell him. “I’m not sittin’ here yesterday or tomorrow, I’m sittin’ here now. And so are you.”

“Not really,” he answers.

Another sip and another deep breath.

He continues: “You’re looking at me now, but it’s not me you’re seeing.”

“You hurt my brain, Jason,” I say. “It’s way too early for this. Why can’t we ever talk about trucks or mulch like normal guys?”

“Shut up, this is important. You’re looking at me now, right?”


“No,” he says. For a fleeting moment he takes on a spastic look of someone both thoroughly confused and happy to be so. “You’re not! You’re looking at me, but not me now.”

“I’m pretty sure I hate you,” I answer. I can say these sorts of things because Jason has always ignored them. He ignores it this time, too.

“It takes nanoseconds for the electrical impulses from the eye to reach the brain and translate what’s being seen. By that time, the moment’s gone. Don’t you see what that means? We’re all stuck in the past.”

I wrinkle my brow.

“That sunshine out there? That’s not sunshine now, that’s light that left the sun eight minutes ago,” he said.

“So that sunshine is from the past?”

“YES! And you’re hearing my words, but you’re really not hearing them now.”

I was starting to see where he was going with this. “Because it takes microseconds for them to get from you to me.”

“And microseconds more for your brain to process them.”

“It’s taking longer than microseconds, Jason.”

He takes a long sip of his coffee and studies me. “This stinks, doesn’t it?”

If Jason is right (and I have no reason to suspect he’s wrong), then I suppose it really is sort of awful. Maybe we can’t live in the present. Maybe we’re doomed to exist in a perpetual state of not-quite-here. Maybe the best we’re ever going to be able to do is always lag just a little behind.

We sit together in silence, contemplating roasted beans and the depths of reality.

“What do you think?” he asks.

“I think you’re a strange little man.”

“Funny,” he says. But as he says it rather than laughs it, I’m starting to think that maybe he’s taking this much more seriously than he should.

“This is really bothering you?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says. “I know it shouldn’t. I know it’s really pretty stupid. Right?”

“I’m gonna go with…yes.”

“Can I tell you something?” Jason whispered.

“As long as it isn’t anything like what you’ve just told me.”

“I hate philosophy. I thought it would make me a better person, you know? Get me thinking more. But I don’t like thinking more.”

(I understand. I don’t think much a lot of the time. It doesn’t suck.)

“What’s the use?” he continues. “I mean, why bother? With anything?”

We sit and sip. Eventually the conversation does change to things I can understand—the trucks and mulch. But in the back of my mind, I’m still thinking about what he said.

Maybe Jason is right, we can’t live in the present. Maybe we’re all in a cosmic game of catch-up.

It would explain a lot.

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at his blog What I Learned Today and follow him on twitter at @BillyCoffey

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