Recently I was at a team-building workshop where the leader asked us a question: “Which button would you rather have for your life: rewind or pause?” We quickly divided into two groups: the majority chose “pause,” and just a few (including me) chose “rewind.” Discussion followed…most of those who chose “pause” said that they wanted to have more time to appreciate their lives. Those of us who chose “rewind” were focused on regret, and liked the idea of undoing something from our past, putting right what once went wrong.
This got me thinking about the time I discovered The Insight. The time I discovered that there actually is a rewind button for life. The time I discovered that I don’t have the guts to press that rewind button. “There is a rewind button, and I can’t press it”…that is The Insight. But there’s a lot more to tell in order for you to understand what I found that day.
It must have been the summer of 1993, or somewhere around then, the summer between high school and college. I had a lot of friends all over eastern Pennsylvania, thanks to the Lutheran Youth Fellowship events I attended a few times a year throughout those years. My friend Lily threw a party one night that summer, and several of us slept over at her (parents’) house in a beautiful rural area. (Lily’s not her real name. If the real “Lily” reads this, and lets me know it’s okay to share her name, I will.) There were no alcohol or drugs involved; we were a pretty straightedge sort of group…although you could be forgiven for doubting me on this once you learn what happened.
The funny thing is, I don’t even remember what happened. The only things I can remember are The Insight itself, which happened the next morning, and the place I was when I found The Insight…a wooded area (or was it a field? maybe a bit of both) behind Lily’s house. I’m not even sure if there was even a party. Maybe it was just the two of us. See? You already doubt me about the drugs, but really there really were none.
So, okay. I’ve written about The Insight before. It became part of an odd little story called “Withdrawal” that I wrote in 1999. Nobody ever read that story, but I am so grateful that I wrote it, and that I still have it, because most of the details that follow are taken almost verbatim from “Withdrawal.” But what’s annoying to me is this: I remember that I changed a number of details in order to make “Withdrawal” a more interesting story; but I don’t remember any longer which details I changed. (For instance, in “Withdrawal” there was no party, but I really think there was in real life. But I don’t know.) So I have no idea how much of this really happened. But The Insight happened. Philosophically, this story is true. Historically, who knows? So read on, if you want to. And if you were one of my LYF friends, and you happened to be at Lily’s house that night, maybe you can correct me on some of the details.
The morning after the party (or not), I was up very early. I hadn’t had much sleep. We had stayed up very late, and I never slept well in strange beds in those days. After a fitful few hours, I surrendered to wakefulness around sunrise, and decided a walk would do me good. I figured I had a few hours before anyone else woke up, so I quietly got my shoes on, and walked out back. There were woods at the edge of the backyard that seemed to go on forever, so I decided to enter them. I found a path, and as I walked, my thoughts started to come together. A big part of those thoughts had to do with my increasing attraction toward Lily. Under other circumstances, I probably would have simply told her about my feelings…I was always pretty good at being up front with feelings like this. (Not that it paid off more than about 10% of the time – but that 10% made it worth it!) But this was different, because she was currently dating my oldest and dearest friend “Scott.” So I knew it wouldn’t be fair to either of them if I told her. But I was an emo sort of kid, and I couldn’t just let it go. I wondered if maybe I should tell Lily anyway…was it fair not to tell her? How could she make a decision between us if she didn’t even know the decision was available?
God, this sounds like every movie made in the eighties. So anyway, I was walking, and the trail split.
The fork on the right continued through some foreboding trees, while the left one reached down to hug a slow, tranquil brook. I went left, listening to the gentle tapping of the water skipping over the stones, as it drizzled ever so slowly to the distant sea. Life is just a series of choices, I thought. With every choice, we branch off into alternate and parallel universes. So, there’s another me somewhere in another dimension who chose to turn right at the fork in the trail. There’s a me somewhere who never took this walk in the first place. There’s a me somewhere who already told Lily about his feelings for her. And there’s a me somewhere who’s happily dating her right now! And I suppose there would also have to be a me somewhere who had never met her in the first place. There’s a me for every season. And I suppose in the long run, all of these choices are equally represented in the…what do you call it… “multiverse”? In which case, maybe it doesn’t even matter what we choose, from a “global” perspective. When we choose something, we’re not creating something new…we’re just choosing which of the infinite branches we’re going to walk down. We’re already on all the paths…we just choose which one to take our consciousness down.
And at this point, I noticed that I was no longer walking on a trail. Apparently I was thinking too hard to pay adequate attention to my surroundings. The ground cover was getting thicker, and there were bushes all around me. I listened…I couldn’t even hear the brook anymore. Where was I? I continued forward, hoping I’d find the trail, or any trail, again soon. I continued my meandering thoughts as well: just knowing that there’s a me out there dating Lily doesn’t really help this me at all! I don’t want to acknowledge the existence of that other me; I want to meet him, I want to talk with him, I want to become him! I want to jump across the void between these realities. But I know I can’t. But what if I could unmake the choices that had brought me here? What if I could backtrack up the path of my life, reverse some choices, and head back down a new path toward the me I want to be? Could it work? Would I be happy then? Or would I just second-guess every decision? Would reversing become an addiction? Maybe I would never be satisfied.
The bushes now became just a mess of thorns, and I was presented with a decision: either turn back now, or weave my way forward, plowing through pickers and thorns. I decided that I wasn’t turning back. I was willing to donate a few drops of blood to this field in return for its wisdom. Forward it was, through the thorns. And through my brains. Maybe I’d never be satisfied with reversing my choices, I thought, but that’s academic anyway, until I discover whether I can actually do it. I thought about what it would take to find myself in a reality in which I was dating Lily. Okay, I’d have to reverse a number of choices, while making sure not to change others. First off, I’d have to backtrack all the way to before she and Scott started dating; that way it wouldn’t be unethical. (Right?) But here’s the problem…the reason I never pursued Lily back then was because I had a girlfriend at the time. So I’d have to go back further, and erase the decisions that led to that relationship. Then I could immediately woo Lily the moment I met her at that LYF event. Oh, this had potential, because even if she didn’t appreciate the courtship, I could swiftly nullify even more choices, and mold myself from the top down into someone she would prefer!
But…how could I be certain that that new me would still be attracted to her? The science was starting to get a little precarious. And here’s the big problem: if I just stumbled now upon the knowledge that I can revise my past, then even undoing this walk through the – ow! – thorns would make me forget that I have the power to undo anything! And then, I wouldn’t be able to make any changes…I’d just unknowingly live the same life again, and I’d find myself back here in these same thorn bushes again. And maybe that’s exactly what’s happened, who knows how many times. Nothing would ever change because my experience is linear…any version of me prior to now could not have the current me’s knowledge. It’s been too ingrained in me for too long that one thing follows another.
I realized that my only hope to actually succeed in changing my own past would be to immediately rewind far enough to a point when I didn’t yet understand that time was linear. And while we certainly don’t think in those terms as infants or toddlers, the instinct that effect follows cause must be one of the earliest revelations of self-awareness. I’d have to go way, way, way back. If I erase everything right now, undo everything back to that quintessential moment as a child when I learned, when I chose to believe that time is linear, then I could indeed change my past, and change my future, but I would have to begin everything anew, with no real recollection of this life at all, no recollection of this glass onion that I peeled away today to reveal this nugget of indigestible truth.
The bushes started to thin out, and I found myself in a clearing, under the sun that I had only glimpsed through the trees for so long. I could see Lily’s house again…for as far as I’d walked, I wasn’t actually that far from where I’d started. I had come full circle. And now I knew it. Somehow I knew that it was possible…maybe precisely because I knew I’d never do it, somehow that convinced me I could. I could do it. I really could hit the rewind button right now, and change my life. The trouble is, the only way I could change anything was to change everything. I’d have to start a new life, a life in which I accepted that time could be rewritten. In which I accepted that time wasn’t linear. And I wasn’t willing to do that. The rewind button was a Pandora’s box I wasn’t willing to open.
And that’s The Insight. The Insight that I can, but I won’t. And ever since then, I have truly believed that that rewind button exists, but that it’s the nuclear option. It’s functionally the same as just allowing myself to completely sever ties with reality. It’s the end of the movie Brazil. It’s a form of suicide, I suppose. The death of personality. The death of personal history.
Wow. This was an interesting trip down memory lane for me. I feel like I traveled back there to recount the story. But so many of the details are probably wrong. I changed some of them when I wrote “Withdrawal,” and I changed more of them today, ostensibly to change them “back” to the “real” story. But I really don’t know how much of what I just wrote actually happened. I remember the thorns. I remember the Insight. I remember Lily’s house. I remember that I had a crush on her, but I’m not even sure if that crush was there on the day this happened. That might not have been the actual impetus for my philosophizing…but it does make for a better story. So what have I actually done here? Have I just invented fiction? Or did I go back and rewrite my own history? If these are my memories, and nobody can prove otherwise, then have I changed my own past, without even committing Suicide of Personality? Have I proven The Insight to be false? Do I have a rewind button that I can use?
Oh, man. I’ve got a feeling I’m going to have to revisit this later. I hope I find a “pause” button by then…I think I may need it.