The movie of our life

I really enjoy going to the movies. Cocooned in the darkness the world seems to go away and the director takes us hither and thither, as his story unfolds. I watch action, rom-com’s and animation, but not subtitled movies. Maybe because in ninety minutes the kiss and titles will signal the all clear and I can take up the yolk of everyday drudgery. Life does not end when the screen goes black and we walk out redolent of popcorn. We know nothing is static.

While watching the movie we see a celluloid fiction. In order to see the picture our eyes have to travel down the optic nerve, and be processed by the brain. This takes several hundred milliseconds, by which time the movie and the world has moved on. Everything you see now has already happened. We live in history not in the now. Everything you see has already happened by the time you see and think about it. To keep track of the “now” and the timeframe in an ever-changing reality is nigh impossible.

Therefore, the brain makes predictions about what the world will look like about 200 milliseconds into the future and even more remarkable: predict the future. Without this future projection you can imagine how many collisions there would be as we navigate our way around very solid entities like chairs.

Did you also know we cannot truly look ourselves in the eye? We can see ourselves in a mirror or photo, or through somebody else’s eyes. We base so much of our belief structures without proof of what we are. Not only that, what we see is an edited version of reality. We can only take in 10 to 12 separate images per second, not the rest. If every second of your life were replayed at a slowest setting, it would be a series of photos linked in darkness. This is not so bad I thought. Then I was told we have to take from those photos and only collect the parts which attract our attention at first glance. The rest we discard. In the same way, the illusionist distracts us from the gorilla eating a banana without us seeing it until he rewinds the video and we suddenly see it, we all focus on what we want to believe is happening. In the end, a fraction of our being movie is captured. When I put all these flashes of light in one part of my imaginary room, a massive part of my life was lived unseen. You may ask why this is relevant to the movie or our lives.

We often look at history with regret. If only I did this or if I could relive that moment we say; I would do it differently. If we accept we live in the past, how can we change the way it has been recorded? Can we choose in advance the history you wish to have, and change it to make it better? If we live in the near future, the present will happen as we hope it will. “You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching, Love like you’ll never be hurt, Sing like there’s nobody listening, And live like it’s heaven on earth.” William W. Purkey’s quote has become a modern refrain. I would phrase it differently. Do all of these as if you are showing what you have already done, as if paging through the album of your life with a friend.

Then again, maybe in this fractured existence we have to find an anchor, the one person that can see us clearly through the shards to piece the picture together and then add the missing parts like a restorer of old masters would. We wish to retain our original view and colour the missing parts to enhance, not interfere with perception of remaining original parts or not insert our version. I choose to anchor myself and my reality with people who I trust. As if a team of embroiders working on a large tapestry. The design is set, but each person in the team will pick up a stitch here and there to maintain the integrity of the whole. The same way we hope to be there for them. Is the system fail-safe? Not at all, but when we embark we know problems will beset us. Things will have to be unpicked, a dye batch will change the hue and the vision we had at the outset will be different. Our movie will be spliced, edited and embellished to cover what we did not shoot, but it will ours.

As The Little Prince says, “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”


Rev. Doctor Gereth Edwards was a practicing plastic surgeon, co-founder of the Netcare Milpark Hospital - Breast Care Centre of Excellence and the Breast Health Foundation. He then refocused his life and qualified as a minister. He writes from both a scientific and humanities view.

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