My first real glimpse of eternity came sometime during kindergarten or first grade. I'd had a previous brush with the concept on an earlier Sunday morning when the hard oak surface of a church pew threatened to forever flatten my backside and the little voice inside my head kept screaming, "Will this never end?" But it was my introduction to numbers that truly revealed the open-ended nature of infinity and stopped me in my tracks.
Having learned the linear string of 1 through 9 and the repetitive magic of base 10 counting, my teacher, who in retrospect I imagine simply wanted some quiet time to slip away to the teachers' lounge for a cup of coffee, told us all to take out a piece of paper and start writing down numbers in sequential order. "You can stop when you run out of numbers," she said, barely containing her mirth.
I set about the task with gusto, quickly establishing the rules of an imaginary game involving patterns and time. My page began to fill quickly, if messily, with columns of numbers. Somewhere north of 300 I stopped cold, frozen by what I saw. I was, I realized a few years later after tumbling off my bike and hitting my head hard enough to see stars, stunned, totally disoriented.
"They never end!" Numbers never, ever end. No matter how big they get, the simple, day-one arithmetic lesson of adding 1+1 means they never end; there's always a number one number larger than the biggest one you can think of and there'll always be an even larger number than that. It was a five-year-old's window into the Big Bang and ever-expanding universe. How elegant. How infinite. How mind-boggling. Carumba!
When the teacher came back into the room, everyone was beavering away, scrawling down numbers. Everyone except me. I was staring off numbly into space. "Stuck?" she said.
Snapping out of my haze, I looked up at her and said, "They never end, you know. The numbers never end. There's always a larger one."
I don't think it was the pointlessness of the exercise that made me lose interest. I imagine, based on her reaction, a kind of grin suggesting victory, I'd grasped the point of her exercise. It was just too big a reality to comprehend.
As we slide past the event horizon of the Olympics and finally feel ourselves actually sucked and stretched into the vortex of the black hole, I'm finding a lot of people experiencing a similar aha moment. The physical reality of the Games coming to town has always seemed as abstract as an infinite string of numbers but unlike numbers, the end is near. It's really happening and the gaping chasm of understanding of what it means to actually hold an Olympics in a town as small as Whistler is beginning to sink in.