Just a little different

The last night before I graduated from Olivet Nazarene University, I lay awake in bed. Looking back, I can now see that I got a lot out of my education there, but at that moment, it seemed like four wasted years — and worse, it seemed like it had set me up for a wasted life. My initial attempts to get into grad school were a failure, and a few weeks previous, I had a heated conversation with my mom, who told me I needed to take a fifth year to get a teaching certificate and redeem my “useless” degree. And so as I lay there, I pictured how things could have been different. First, I pictured going to other colleges, where I wouldn’t have had to deal with the evangelical shit, where I wouldn’t be marked for life as a religious fanatic, where I would have had more opportunities. As a first-generation college student, I didn’t have much guidance in the process of applying for college, and I basically gave up on the idea of applying anywhere else when it was clear I’d get a full-tuition scholarship to Olivet. What was I thinking?!

Then I took a step further back: why had I wasted so much time on irrelevant things in high school? Why all those thankless hours in Bible quizzing? Why were my only travel options youth group outings or suffocating family camping trips? Why didn’t I take French instead of Spanish, to prepare me for the demands of grad school? Why did I stick so doggedly to marching band when I so resented the demands it placed on my time? I was on the right track with the piano, but why did I have to take lessons from a stuffy church pianist who was always wasting my time with tacky “special music” hymn arrangements? I was smart, I was inquisitive — why were there so few people around me who knew what to do with that?

Of course, speaking of French: I probably should have learned it when I was very young, so that I could be fluent…. On and on it went — not bemusedly, not ironically, but in deadly earnest. I was in an emotional frenzy and could only get to sleep once I settled on the deep conviction, the completely certain knowledge that I would be given another chance. I would wake up tomorrow morning and have the chance to live my life over again, from a point where I could still make a difference.

A little over ten years later, my perspective has changed. Now things seem so fragile and improbable that I wouldn’t want to risk changing anything. This is not to say that my life is perfect or my success is assured — just that where I am now opens onto a livable future, and I am vividly aware that that is not automatic.

Yet if I step back for a second, I sometimes do wish I could go back — not to change everything, but to be the kind of person who wouldn’t paint himself into the corner and feel like he needed to change everything. I wish I could have held things a little more loosely, been a little less anxious, a little less proud. A little less scared all the time, less intent on getting everything into its right place, less obsessed with being right and above reproach. The person who wanted to go back in time and change everything would have fucked everything up in a new way. If I could go back, I hope I could be just a little different — that I could somehow make that one adjustment that would really change everything, even if nothing much changed.

2 thoughts on “Just a little different

  1. Great stuff! I think this kind of thought experiment is better than Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. The me that would (were the assumptions about infinity valid) do all the same things I do in the future is a different me. Why should I worry more him about him than the people around me?

    But the thought of being able to transplant your mind, knowing everything you do now, back into an earlier version of you reveals a lot more. To not want to go back and redo it is both to realize how all of your earlier humiliations shaped you and to affirm your present self in the Nietzschean sense. And the reasons that one wouldn’t do such a thing show what is really important. For me its (in this order): children, my wife, and my writing. With respect to kids, the exact egg and sperm that produced your kid could not be reproduced, so having kids marks a complete barrier to this kind of mind travel.

    This being said, thinking of things one could have done better is still helpful for figuring out how to do things now, but I like your point about respecting the fragility of causation.

    A now deceased friend of mine wrote a science fiction story about going back in time and beating up an earlier version of himself in the hope that the earlier version would get his stuff together and not make all the mistakes that he’d made. The time traveler hopes that changing the past will thus change the present he goes back to. But, unfortunately, time travel ends up creating branching universes. And the very angry past him builds a time/universe machine to go back to the future him’s time/universe and get revenge for the beating. But this creates another branching universe. The cycle of revenge goes on and on until the end of the story where there is a multiverse war between two armies of him, just on the verge of being annihilated by the weapons developed by the two sides.

    In real life, my friend had an aortic rupture in his mid thirties. It was horrible for everyone involved, but better than the fictional alternative he’d created.

  2. It seems like 10 years-from-now-me (hopefully) wrote this. I’m living the days you’ve talked about right now. Obsessing over every choice I made, torturing myself over perpetual regrets like I should have learned this and done that, and yet I can see your point, even more I can feel it with my flesh. It’s weird when one knows s/he is wrong about her self-assessments but still it can not change anything. Maybe it is the Freudian difference between knowledge and consciousness.

    Anyway one should live just fine, only living this: “The person who wants to go back in time and change everything would have fucked everything up in a new way.”
    Amor fati

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