Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

Zeno’s Paradox as Emotional Resistance

Published in Blog.

From this morning’s reading of The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow,

“Suppose a student wishes to step to the door, which is 1 meter away. (We choose a meter here for convenience, but the same argument holds for a mile or any other measure.) Before she arrives there, she first must arrive at the halfway point. But in order to reach the halfway point, she must first arrive at the halfway to the halfway point—that is, at the one-quarter way point. And so on, ad infinitum. In other words, in order to reach her destination, she must travel this sequence of distances: 1/2 meter, 1/4 meter, 1/8 meter, 1/6 meter, and so on. Zeno argued that because the sequence goes on forever, she has to traverse an infinite number of finite distances. That, Zeno said, must take an infinite amount of time. Zeno’s conclusion: you can never get anywhere.”

It’s scary how aligned with Zeno my thinking can be.

I tend to get stuck in the weeds in the best of times, and the last couple weeks have proven no exception to the rule. Two or three weeks ago a friend tipped me to a yoga app, Down Dog, which was offering its premium version for free for several weeks. I tried it and loved it. I told several friends and family members, but it wasn’t until this morning that I actually opened it back up.

And I don’t really know why, other than my tendency to default to all or nothing thinking. To unpack that a little in the context of Zeno’s paradox, my resistance might align with a view that if I start, what I’m really getting myself into is an infinite number of finite yoga classes, which sounds damn near impossible now that I put it in those terms. Until the quarantine, I’d been exercising at a gym, doing group classes, since November, but can’t find a rhythm at home. Same deal there. Despite knowing that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, and that baby steps will get me where I need to be, it all just seems like so much right now.

“Zeno’s paradox concerns the amount of time it takes to make the journey, not the distance covered. If the student were forced to take individual steps to cover each of Zeno’s intervals, she would indeed be in some time trouble (not to mention her having to overcome the difficulty of taking submillimeter steps)! But if she is allowed to move at constant speed without pausing at Zeno’s imaginary checkpoints—and why not?—then the time it takes to travel each of Zeno’s intervals is proportional to the distance covered in that interval, and so since the total distance is finite, as is the total time—and fortunately for all of us—motion is possible after all.”

I’m really cherry-picking what I want to see here, but in reflecting on the day I’m focused on the line about the time it takes to cover an interval being proportional to the distance covered in that interval. I can’t do an infinite number of 12 minute yoga sessions in 12 minutes; I can just do one. And I can’t do two months worth of exercising this afternoon, but I can do today’s exercises. As one of the elders in a men’s group I attend says, we do Monday things on Monday and Wednesday things on Wednesday. It really is as simple as that.