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  • Andre Lamartin

Distance, Time & Human Relationships

In physics, the inverse-square law dictates that the intensity of a force is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source of the force to the observer. This is just a convoluted way of saying that the intensity of a force will diminish as you distance yourself from its source.

Imagine, for example, what you would experience if you were to walk towards someone holding a flashlight. From a distance, the light may seem week and feeble, but as you approach its source, the light becomes strong and blinding. The inverse square law applies to all sorts of natural phenomena ranging from light, sound and radiation to magnetic, electric and gravitational forces. The real question then is: does it apply to human relationships?

If two people who share a strong bond are separated by a great distance, how will the intensity of the love they once shared be affected? The French writer Comte de Bussy may have given the definitive answer: "Absence is to love what wind is to fire; it extinguishes the small, but enkindles the great." In other words, only mediocre passions and fair weather friendships are subjected to the inverse-square law. True love and great friendships defy the laws of physics because their intensity does not diminish with distance, quite on the contrary, it increases.

An additional limitation of the inverse-square law is that it does not account for another important variable which affects human relationships: time. When great distances are involved, the passage of time can directly affect our perception of reality. Astrophysics may illustrate this point. Alpha Centauri is the closest star to our solar system, being 4.3 light years away from Earth. This means that the light emitted by Alpha Centauri takes 4.3 years to reach our planet.

Therefore, every time we gaze at Alpha Centauri using a telescope, we are actually seeing the image of the star as it existed 4.3 years ago. If the Alpha Centauri were to be destroyed today, because of the great distances involved, it would take us 4.3 years to witness its demise. In the meantime, night after night, we would be gazing at a star that no longer existed. Night after night, we would be literally gazing at the past.

Similarly, when two people are separated by great distances, the passage of time may distort one's perception of the relationship to the point where love becomes an illusion of the past. In some cases, one of the parties may have lost interest, but the other has not quite realized it yet and continues to gaze at a star that has long died. And let's be very clear, when we talk about great distances in terms of human relationships, geographical definitions may not necessarily apply. It’s possible for two people to live in close proximity and still grow miles apart as time goes by. In fact, the greatest form of solitude is the one experienced when you're in the company of someone who allegedly loves you, and yet, you feel absolutely alone.

This being said, there are other cases where love is completely untrammeled by the passage of time, leading one to conclude that there are conflicting schools of thought on how human relationships are affected by time. Even Shakespeare seems to have been ambivalent on this issue. In sonnet 12, he somberly concedes that "nothing against time's scythe can make defence", but in sonnet 18 he professes to believe in eternal summers that shall never fade.

Other poets and playwrights do not fare any better. Tennessee Williams said that "time is the longest distance between two places" and seemed to imply that it could not be vanquished by love. On the other hand, Henry Van Dyke stated that "time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is not."

So what can really be said about distance, time and human relationships? In the end, as mortal beings, our lives are bound by space and time. Hence, human relationships must necessarily be affected by distance and time. True as this may be, there is only so much that can be explained by the laws of physics. As Mignon McLaughlin once remarked, "In the arithmetic of love, two minus one equals zero and one plus one equals infinity."

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