Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate

The television series LOST is approaching it's final season and the episodes this year have been deeply rewarding for those of us who have committed to the long haul.

We see a tapestry woven from the threads of each character's lives; these threads intersect in past, present and future; and on the loom of time Fate's pattern begins to emerge. In the universe of LOST, and perhaps our own, the future as well as the past is fixed and unchangeable. I find this idea unsettling, since it negates the concept of free will, and I like to imagine myself as having some ability to steer the course of my own destiny. However, I've recently read a masterful short story by Ted Chiang called The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, which provides some insight and even some comfort.

The story is narrated to a Caliph of ancient Baghdad by Fuwaad ibn Abbas, a merchant of fabric. He tells of his discovery of shop full of wondrous things, of meeting the wise and learned Alchemist who created them, and of the Gate of Years - a portal in which each side was separated in time by 20 years. Before allowing Abbas to use the Gate, the Alchemist tells him three tales about those who had used the Gate previously. Each of these parables eventually intertwine. The Alchemist says "Do you now understand why I say the future and the past are the same? We can not change either, but we can know both more fully."

Twenty years earlier, Abbas had an angry argument with his wife, then left on business. Before they met again, she died in an accident. For twenty years he had repented and atoned as best he could, but found no relief from his guilt and grief. He decides to go back to that time, even though he's been told nothing can be changed. He proceeds on a long and arduous journey from Baghdad to Cairo, where the Alchemist's son keeps an older Gate of Years (one can't journey to a time before a Gate is built).  Once in the past, he takes another caravan back to Baghdad, but due to many misfortunes he arrives one day too late. In renewed misery and anguish, he stands before his old house, when a young woman brings him his wife's dying message of love and he cries tears of release.

Abbas says "My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons."  The story ends as he tells the Caliph "the most precious knowledge I possess is this: Nothing erases the past. There is repentance; there is atonement; and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough."

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