As I was thinking up my birthday blog post from last week, in which I reflect on birthdays as a social construct and an opportunity for introspection, I actually had two ideas, both of which I feel are interesting to explore. Last week’s post was the first one, and now, in a different tone, here’s the second.
Holding the door with my foot, I delicately move the box past it and into the house. It’s not particularly heavy, but it’s big and bulky and has “FRAGILE” written all over it. Once clear of the door, I let it close behind me and go straight to the kitchen table. It’s still a bit messy. On it are my laptop, the dishes I didn’t bother to wash yet after lunch, and some paperwork and bills I haven’t put away yet. I find the one clear corner of the table and set the box down on it.
I know what’s inside it. The friend who sent it to me told me. He said he’d designed a kind of time machine that should allow me to go back and change anything in my past that I might regret. However in the note he sent me with the box, which is still balanced on top of it, he explicitly says that he can’t guarantee that it WILL work. And he warns me of the possible effects of meddling with time. That part isn’t news to me. I like time travel in fiction, and already have an idea of what might theoretically happen.
And quite frankly, as I unpack the box and unwrap the machine, I can see a hell of a lot of things in my life that I’d like to change. A hell of a lot of ways to use this machine. The possibilities seem frankly limitless. There have been so many times I’ve regretted such or such decision on the basis that it made me look ridiculous, or made me feel isolated or left out, or got me into trouble, or whatever. And so many other times where even though the regret doesn’t seem to have been caused by a conscious decision of my own, I somehow still feel like it’s my fault.
Still too deep in thought to consider starting the machine right away, I instead take a chair and sit down, staring at it. So much I’d like to change. Old bad habits, entire attitudes, saving friendships or cutting ties sooner with toxic people, and applying my current hindsight and experience a lot sooner in life. At this I realize how ludicrous it sounds. I couldn’t have known better, not without… not without a time machine…
Suddenly the possibilities seem more real, more tangible. Maybe I could do it indeed. Go back, change a few decisions, get rid of a few bad habits, maybe find a way to save my first real relationship… But immediately I run into an obstacle. How would I even do it? And even if I manage it, what longer-term consequences might that have? I try to speculate by thinking about the different forms of time travel as envisaged in science and fiction.
In Harry Potter, the new altered timeline exists alongside the original timeline, mixed in partial ways during their overlap until they merge neatly into the new one afterwards. Would that mean I’d have to somehow hide from myself for years and risk catching myself over and over again? Would it be worthwhile to relive so many years of my life just for this?
Then there’s the fact that changing the past will also ultimately change the conditions of the present. Indeed, what kind of consequences would that have on me as I am now? Would I even be able to go back again now if my life had been perfect? Would I be willing to or even feel a need to? Uh-oh, it’s the grandfather paradox all over again. By doing what it takes to negate the need to go back in time to negate anything, I end up… well… NOT going back in time to negate anything. Which restores the original situation and sets me up to want to go back in time in the present again…
I get up and walk to the window, hoping to get a change of perspective without the machine sitting in front of me. I stare out of it for a while. After a couple of minutes my attention is drawn to a butterfly fluttering by the flowers on the neighbor’s hedge. It rings a distant sort of bell in my mind, and I can’t shake it. I keep focusing on the butterfly for a while. I watch as its lightweight wings, looking fragile as anything, swat through the air to keep it airborne. I think of all the little eddies and air currents the wings generate, how they might spread, and indeed how they do sometimes nudge the flowers and leaves of the plant.
Just as the butterfly settles down on a flower and stops moving, the memory hits me. The Butterfly effect, of course. I remember back in 7th grade reading about how scientists have actually disproven the popular Butterfly effect with regards to its possible consequences for weather patterns. You know what I’m talking about, this is the famous idea that a mere butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world might trigger drastic weather patterns at the other end of the world. Indeed, it’s unmeasurable because the system is so insanely complex that, what with the gajillion other variables present, there would be no way to reliably keep track of such a phenomenon even IF one could follow it downstream all the way. Yet still, I feel it might have some bearing in my current predicament.
Still focusing on the butterfly, as if considering it’s the key to finding the true connection, I start thinking instead about how it decides where to go anyway. What if, instead of aiming for that particular flower, the butterfly had aimed for a different one? What consequences might that have? Would it favor one line of such flowers over another in the evolutionary grand scheme of things? Would it not matter at all because that flower would get pollinated in time anyway?
Oddly enough, the connection between the Butterfly effect and the package on the table ends up coming through a mosquito landing on the window in front of me. Instinctively I move my hand up gently, then once it’s close enough, slam the window, catching the bug beneath it. I hate mosquitoes. If I had my way I’d get rid of all of them. But then again… They say if we got rid of all bees most of nature would die out. Suddenly everything falls into place.
Of course. If I went back and changed something in my past, anything at all, how much control would I have over the consequences? I’d be doing this on the assumption that I would come back to my current life, today, now, just the way I am, but without that particular regret. But I’d have no guarantee of that at all, because changing one past decision would alter the context for almost all subsequent decisions, and as such might alter those other decisions at the source.
The butterfly starts moving again, leaving its flower, presumably for another. And then the full connection is clear. Of course. The Ashton Kutcher movie. In trying to save his friends and love from various things, Kutcher’s character goes back to change individual small details but doesn’t realize until the end that every small thing he changes causes wider and wider deviations over time. Chaos theory, in short. If I were to do this now, I would have absolutely no guarantee of ever coming back to this situation. Sure, I might end up better off, stronger, more charismatic, smarter, richer or whatever. But I could also end up a lot worse. And the worst part is, I would have no way at all of knowing which it is or how to control it.
Another thought strikes me then. If I could somehow choose the Kutcher way of doing it, how could I even know if I’d go back as me from now, with all my current experience and hindsight? If I end up back in my own skin from back then, I may also just be in the exact conditions I was in back then, which would then lead me to make exactly the same decisions over again. And after all, how would it even make sense to have future experience? This experience would have, in effect, popped up out of nowhere, born of events that had never happened or people I’d never met. Or would I be condemned to relive the same life in exactly the same way anyway?
And then there’s another factor. When you look into alternate history scenarios, you often find that changing one event in the past does less than it seems. Namely, it might temporarily bypass one historical event, but ultimately the factors that caused the original event are probably still there somewhere waiting to act up later in time. This gets me thinking. There are a lot of mistakes I made that I’d like to undo. Only if I undo those mistakes made at those times, what’s to guarantee that in the new timeline I wouldn’t make the same mistake anyway, only later? For example, if the American Civil War or the French Revolution hadn’t taken place when they did, that wouldn’t necessarily have meant that they were bound never to take place, because the conditions that led to them would have gone on until one day or another they’d have started anyway.
I also think back to a moment from Harry Potter, when Dumbledore admits to Harry that he too makes mistakes sometimes and that, powerful as he is, his mistakes tend to have rather larger impact than most others’. Now of course I’m not so deluded as to believe that I am in any way magically powerful. However, the more I experience, and the more I progress in life, the more I realize that relative to who I was two decades ago, yes, I’m a Dumbledore. Back then my mistakes were ultimately minor and only really affected me and sometimes my sisters. But now they have the potential to affect more people. So all in all, was it not better to make those mistakes first, learn from them and avoid them as best I could later on?
Still, it seems a shame to finally have access to one of these, the ultimate dream of people of all sizes, shapes and classes, and not use it. So I try to think back to something I really want to change, even something minor just to test it. Should it be one of the times I completely misread the situation and acted upon it out of turn? No, those were never all that serious after all. one of the zillion times I just procrastinated on something? No, the fact that that’s happened so many times means there’s some underlying cause, and just changing one of these wouldn’t help because five minutes later I’d have had the same problem again. or one of the times I underestimated the stakes of something and didn’t put in the necessary effort? No, same answer, and besides, it’s not always easy to completely evaluate those stakes so far in advance. Or one of the times I’d failed to learn a lesson from a past failure? No, that won’t do either, one doesn’t always learn lessons immediately, and I’m well placed to know that given what I say in my blog posts about learning languages.
And that suddenly seems to clinch it in my mind. It’s not merely a matter of correcting mistakes or saving myself from embarrassment. It’s not just about fixing myself or changing my past in the hopes that my fate might be radically different. And it’s also not a matter of deciding that such change or such other change will definitely make my life “better”, because of course I don’t, and indeed I can’t, know that ahead of time (by the way, is ‘ahead of time’ the right expression when considering going back in time to change something to have a better situation now?). Ultimately it’s about realizing that, like it or not, all those events conspired to make me who I am. Even if I went back, even if I kept my experience and hindsight as I went back, and even if I succeeded in changing something to get to a different point in life now, it would involve a lot of adjustment, whether re-experiencing the intervening time and learning as I go along or jumping back here into a completely unfamiliar setting. And of course none of this would protect me from continuing to make mistakes and irrational decisions. In all likelihood it would cause more problems that it fixed, or at best not change much in the grand scheme of things.
With this I realize I just have no control over the past and shouldn’t presume to try. My past self, in all its variations, was far from perfect of course, but then again we all are. There have been a ton of mistakes I should have learned from, many of which I have learned from. And there will be more. All those little things I might have wanted to change, I realize, are part of me. They’re in my memory as constant reminders. They’re a part of my experience and what makes me me. I should just embrace them and keep making and learning from more mistakes.
And even though my life may not be quite what I’d dreamed of or even remotely expected, I honestly can’t complain. Now, after a couple of years of trying to figure myself out, I have a job and a decent home and some prospects for the future. I have the trust of my managers and colleagues and friends. I am educated, intelligent, resourceful and healthy because of my past. And that’s all anyone could wish for, really. I just need to embrace myself, all of myself, including the embarrassments and failures and flaws. Because they made me who I am today and the only thing I can do about them is take them into consideration in order to move forward as effectively as possible. The best I can do is avoid repeating the same mistakes, learn to stay pragmatic and rational and not dwell on mistakes when I inevitably make more, recognize and address my flaws, and put in place ways to succeed more reliably in future.
I look at the machine on the table again, thinking. Yeah, this won’t be of any use to me anyway. I might as well just put it away. I pick it up and turn toward the cupboards in the corner. At one point my hand slips and the machine falls to the floor, breaking open an entire side of the box. That’s when I see the inside: it’s empty. No machinery, no equipment, nothing at all. I’m not even sure this thing would work. Hell, I’m not even sure it’s designed to work. It may well be just a placebo. But then again, maybe that’s all I needed to bring me to this realization. Smiling now at the sneaky but effective trick my friend pulled on me, I fix up the box with a bit of glue and go put it away. I can already think of a few people who could use this machine, if not to actually travel through time, then at least to gain perspective on their lives like I did.