If you stand at the rear of a train moving in a straight line at 60 miles per hour and you start walking forward at 3 miles per hour, common sense and Galileo tell you that you are now moving in a specific direction at a speed of 63 miles per hour relative to the ground. However, if you’ve been on the train so long that you’ve stopped perceiving its 60 mile per hour motion, you only recognize the following:
- You were slacking off until you got up off your fat bottom and started walking.
- You could walk faster if you were serious.
If you remember anything from your school days about such thought exercises, you’ll remember that the initial problem is just the gateway. I’m convinced that people like Einstein only go into physics so they can build elaborate thought-mazes to torment students but since science claims exclusive right to logic I’m afraid we must follow where it’s practitioners lead.
To continue, let’s assume you were doing something before you started walking, say, eating lunch, maybe while going over the family budget or scheduling people to care for your aging mother while the usual caretaker is on vacation, or doing the grocery shopping. You’ve been at these activities as long as you’ve been on the train; they also fall under the “no longer noticed” heading. They are just part of the stationary frame of reference against which you measure your anemic 3 mile per hour hike down the aisle.
Along the way you encounter the conductor. He advises you to return to your seat for safety. This interruption changes the velocity, the speed and direction, of your walk. It must be factored in to your calculations.
Moving past the conductor you now come across multiple conductors, or so it seems. Some are authentic, others are imposters who happen to enjoy telling people what to do. These run-ins result in more delta v, changes in speed and direction, but in your mind the initial conductor encounter has already been absorbed by the stationary frame of reference.
You continue your walk, making the same, plodding progress. Like a character in Snowpiercer you’ve lost virtually all connection with the world outside the train; for all you know there is no such place. All you see is the slow, often interrupted walk past endless rows of seats.
But there is a world outside. The train travels along a track which now takes it up grades, around curves, from switch to switch. Focused as you are, you don’t notice these changes but your inner ear does. You feel unsteady and disoriented but you can’t imagine why a simple, lethargic walk along a straight line would produce such effects. You’re frustrated; why can’t you walk a simple straight line? Why can’t you keep to the “straight and narrow?” Is there something wrong with you? Has God abandoned you? Do you have some moral flaw that is somehow manifesting its malignancy in your physical actions and well-being?
You clutch at remedies. If you could be a better parent, stick to a budget or get more involved in ministry at church, maybe then you could walk a straight line. If you had the money to fix up the house or pay for the kids’ tuition your walk along the aisle would be a piece of cake.
Maybe, if you could just add enough velocities, you could make real progress.
Never mind that your focus is zeroed in on the end of the train which is speeding you over miles and miles while you eat lunch, take care of your family, pay the bills, work full time, tithe, teach, minister to brothers and sisters, neglect your own health in service to others, spare little for eventual retirement as you spend it on the people you value here and now, draw closer to Christ through reading, fellowship and prayer, lose sleep over souls, take the abuse of the blindly ungrateful and so on and so on. All those things that get relegated to the stationary frame of reference aren’t stationary at all. Einstein’s observer on the embankment couldn’t take in a fraction of the action as your train flies past.
Writers often reference the hypnotic effect of clack-clacking over railroad tracks. Maybe it’s not such a hackneyed device after all. Maybe we get so intent on making progress that we don’t see the progress we’re making.
Maybe God scratches his divine head as he watches us zig and zag over the landscape of the life he’s given us, oblivious to almost everything we accomplish in obedience to him as well as the rewards he both promises and delivers. Maybe Jesus’ “straight and narrow” is more than the simplistic moral formulation we assume it to be. Maybe it is a clear, unambiguous direction about how we ought to live our lives but in true human, pride-filled, sinful fashion we take his perfect declaration, hammer it into something recognizable only to Satan then lament our inability to obey.
But that’s what we get for riding trains when we were made to walk.