The Gate is Small (Pt. 8)

This is a continuation of an allegorical tale begun in The Gate is Small (Pt. 1) and continuing through The Gate is Small (Pt. 2), The Gate is Small (Pt. 3), The Gate is Small (Pt. 4), The Gate is Small (Pt. 5), The Gate is Small (Pt. 6), and The Gate is Small (Pt. 7). I suggest reading the full story in order, but of course, that’s only my opinion.


Though he had told Jack he would be there, Gilbert never came to the hostel that night. The brisk morning air trickled through the room as Jack and I finished cinching our packs.

“Should we be worried about Gilbert?” I asked, opening the door of the hostel.

“No, no. Gilbert knows his way around this mountain. He was simply detained last night. I’m sure I’ll get to introduce you properly later,” said Jack as he crouched to squeeze through the door.

The topic of discussion this morning was our watches. Jack produced his own stunning gold watch from his pocket, which, like mine, had no hands. Only the hour markings circled the edge of the clock face. We were in the middle of the talk when I reiterated my initial question.

“But how are we to tell the time when there are no hands on the watch?” I asked.

“You’re too far ahead! First, we must ask the purpose of the watch, and to know this we must first ask the purpose of all clocks.”

“That’s got nothing to do with what I asked!” I said, annoyed.

“It has everything to do with what you asked. Patience! Now then, the purpose of clocks in general?” Jack asked.

“To tell the time,” I said.

“To tell what time?” He asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean what time! Let’s begin with increments. Does the time a clock tells me come in seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, or years? Will it relay fortnights and millennia?”

“Most clocks give minutes and hours. I suppose some give more information,” I said.

“Ah but not all, correct? Is it safe to say that individual clocks have slightly different purposes based on the amount of information, the increment, they convey?”

“I think it’s safe to say so,” I said, as patronizingly as possible. We were nowhere near my original question.

“Okay, let us consider the quality of the time it tells. Is a clock’s purpose to tell you the best time to do something? For example, is it to tell you that nine o’clock is a more reasonable hour to go to bed than eleven o’clock? Or maybe its purpose is to tell you that another time is coming? It is now 7:15, but careful observation of the clock face lets me know that 7:20 will soon be here.”

“I suppose the clock does assist in those endeavors, but I wouldn’t say that’s its purpose.”

“Correct!” Jack exclaimed. “Those would simply be fringe benefits, added bonuses of a clock fulfilling its purpose, but not the purpose itself. So, with these new thoughts, I ask again, what is the purpose of clocks in general?”

I paused to word it in a way acceptable enough to move on to my actual question. “A clock’s purpose is to tell the reader the hour and minute of the day, possibly more, at the moment which the reader reads it.”

“Fantastically put,” said Jack. “Please forgive my pestering, but to answer questions clearly we must define terms clearly. There would be far less murk in the world if everyone did so. Now if that’s the purpose of clocks in general, would we agree that the key component for a clock to provide this instantaneous information is its hands?”

Now we were getting closer. “Yes, we would agree,” I said, trying not to let sarcasm color my voice.

“If that’s the case, then a clock without hands must be one of three things: a bad clock, a clock with a different purpose, or not a clock at all,” said Jack matter-of-factly.

I pondered a moment, testing his assertion. He continued.

“Let’s assume that a handless clock is, in fact, still a clock, eliminating the final option. These watches that we have, where did they come from?”

“The watchmakers gave them to us, to watch, did they not?” I asked.

“Indeed they did. They gave me mine just as they gave you yours. Now given this origin and the consistent handlessness among all watches given this way, let’s assume they are not bad clocks. They were, in fact, designed this way. This leaves only one remaining option.”

“These watches have a different purpose than a normal clock?”

“Correct again,” said Jack, ignoring my tone. “Now, if these clocks have a different purpose than normal clocks, why give us clocks at all? Why not give us something which achieves its desired purpose according to its conventional design?”

I remained silent.

“Because we are to recognize its purpose precisely by the way it circumvents its conventional design. Do you see?”

I shook my head. He took on a more professorial tone.

“A clock tells the reader what time it is currently, and it does so using its hands. But in removing the key component of a clock, we are instantly told something important: these clocks, our watches, don’t tell us the present time. What time might they be telling us then?”

“If not the present, the only two options are the past and the future” I said.

“Or no time at all,” Jack added. “I think you are correct though. The past or the future must be its purpose. Now, which is more likely? Concerning the past, no apparent purpose appears. The past has occurred, it is locked in place, and nothing about it can change. Were a clock’s purpose to tell us something about the past, the most reasonable circumvention of design would be to give it fixed and rigid hands, telling us about the one thing which cannot be changed: the past.”

“I suppose that makes sense.”

“But consider the future, my boy. What might a handless clock be saying about the future?”

“At the very least it must be saying the future is unknown, just as the handless clock communicates that the current time is unknown,” I said.

“Agreed. Additionally, it might be saying that a particular event in the future is unknown as far as timing, but the event is unequivocally expected, hence the presence of the watch to begin with. Were it to be unknown entirely both in existence and in timing then no watch would be necessary. These watches, therefore act as symbols, down payments, descriptions of an assured future time.”

“Anything else?” I asked.

“You’ll learn this when you reach the summit, but it won’t hurt to whet your appetite.” He cleared his throat. “The sheer brilliance of the watch and its craftsmanship should tell you something about that future event as well. It tells you that moment will be so spectacular we can’t quite comprehend it ourselves. We need pictures, symbols, watches, to point us in the right direction.”

I was glued to Jack’s words.

“In that day, the hike will be over, the time will be here, and we’ll all get to witness the glory of the mountain in its fullest and truest sense. In that day, the view will be unmatched. You’ll be able to see everything that is. But you have to reach the summit first, and without the summit there as the goal, the destination, the purpose of the hike, the hike loses its benefit.”

“I’m not sure I follow you,” I said. “There are many benefits to the hike. Health and energy for example.”

“Of course, health and energy are good things, and they do come as a result of hiking the summit of this mountain, but health and energy can be gained on the wide path below as well. You’re beginning to make the mistake many hikers on this path make. You are confusing the fringe benefits of the hike for the purpose of the hike. Consider the clock again. The fringe benefits of a clock fulfilling its purpose are quite good. I can plan the remaining hours in my day according to the time I read currently from the clock. A ticking clock produces a nice tempo by which I can create music. I can even learn some basic mechanical principles by observing the inner workings of the cogs. But its purpose is none of those things. It’s the same with this hike. We mustn’t confuse the purpose for the benefits. Completing this hike will no doubt improve your cardiovascular system. You’ll meet many people along the trail and make new friends. You may even get to see some spectacular views along the way. But the purpose is to reach the summit! Without the summit beckoning us onward, without the promise of ‘Life’ as the sign said, we may as well be chasing those fringe benefits down on the wide path. It’s much easier going. It’s the summit at the top of the narrow path that makes the fringe benefits of this particular hike far more beneficial than any other. Do you understand?”

“A bit. I’ll need to consider this more,” I said.

“Please do. It’s an important thing to remember. The sign that caught your attention said ‘To Life.’ That must be the starting place and the ending place. Everything along the way is quite good, but it’s meaningless without the life at the end of the journey.”

We had gone about a quarter of a mile by this point in the conversation, and the sun had finally come into full view over the horizon. I looked out at the gorgeous sight which met my eyes. Would the view at the summit be that much better? I looked down at my watch as it gleamed in the morning sun. Perhaps this little golden picture had a point after all?

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