Nothing to Undo
Here’s a message I saw last week after some accidental contact with the touch screen of my iPod…
“Nothing to Undo”. What would that be like? And how do you “Cancel” undoing nothing?
We really don’t get many chances in life to “Undo”. Maybe that’s why I’m a big fan of time-travel stories, from La jetée to The Terminator to Back To The Future. The thought of going back and fixing what went wrong – something you could only know in hindsight – offers so many possibilities. But, not all of them good.
Hiro Nakamura, the time-traveling Special on “Heroes” (as played by Masi Oka, who is reputed to be a genius in real life) had come finally to the conclusion that all the possibilities of “Undo” were bad. ”Everything is interconnected!” he told the Evil Butterfly man. ”There are no small butterflies! It is always bad – always – to change the past!” Of course he went on to prove – again – that at least, changing the past is very, very dangerous. It helps to have the writers on your side though.
It might not always be bad, but it would likely be futile. Would my teen self even believe my AARP self? Would my young-adult self have the awareness to steer differently? And if either me did change anything, what’s the likelihood that I’d just have different regrets? In fact, I do feel this is exactly what would happen. Regret is less a function of what happened and more about how you remember it. How many iterations would my life have to go through before I got everything exactly right? How many tries did it take Bill Murray to get even one day exactly right in Groundhog Day?
Maybe it’s a quirk of my brain, but it’s constant labor to keep putting down the burdens of the past. There’s no final way to lay them down, no baptism, no washing of sins; I did what I did and here we all are. So I put them down again, and again, with conscious effort. Some people seem to have the ability to leave anything unpleasant behind – perhaps they are the ones who can survive wars without going insane. But I am not them.
It hardly matters how trivial the action was. An awkward social hug, or a few regrettable words can come back to me years later. I still remember things I did as a child that I shouldn’t have. There are really big damages too. I’ve spent many nights awake, trying to breathe, unable to come to terms with an important relationship I managed to screw up. I have found it comforting to read Siddhartha, whose main character had almost the same regret.
Again, there’s little doubt that some part of my brain simply works this way. If an FMRI could be taken on one of those nights, almost certainly a neurologist could look at the scan and say; “There! There’s your problem. Now all we have to do is modify your medial orbitofrontal cortex.”
So here’s the question: if it is always wrong to change the past – a question I wouldn’t pretend to be able to answer even if it weren’t purely academic – is it OK to change your brain? I used antidepressants after my dad died and they were a mixed blessing at best. But what if there were some kind of new drug guaranteed to loose the vines of the past? Don’t we need the sense of moral responsibility? Would we be the same people without it? Is there an ideal amount of regret? Who decides what it is? Is it the same for everyone?
And if the setpoint can be achieved with medication, what does personhood even mean? Everything, in the Christian tradition, where you have an eternal soul that can be tortured for all eternity unless the drug of absolution is administered by the divine neuropharmacologist. Or really very little, in the Buddhist tradition, where the self is an illusion and the very first truth of existence is suffering.
Here’s what keeps me from looking too hard for a pharmacological answer – the possibility, however remote, of losing the joy I feel riding my bike in the snow, or watching an ant carry a bit of leaf, or watching my kids turn into the amazing people that they are. I can’t risk losing that – and people who have tried medications often report that is exactly what they trade in the bargain. Joy will not be held hostage to grief, or pain, or regret. It is like a desert flower; as audacious as it is precious in contrast to its surroundings.
It’s how I make peace with existence. And though it might seem intolerable to some people, I often wonder how they can stand living in their heads. That’s a task I’d best leave, to them. Any thoughts? If you suffer from regret or depression, how do you ride it out?
- Yes that’s right: I have now blogged about an iPod error screen.
- In La jetée, you couldn’t change the past when time-traveling, only observe it.
- I occasionally write very personal stuff like this because it would have helped me a lot back in the day – to understand how common it really is, that it doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you, and that it does pass. There really is a wide range of normal. If anything, the always-cheerful person (if they, in fact, are) is unusual. Notice I said “unusual”, not “wrong”. But maybe not necessarily all that lucky either.
- The tendency to ruminate may be hereditary. My father used to lose a lot of sleep over things from the past. He called them his “ghosts”.
- SMBC has it distilled into three frames, of course
- Apparently this iPod message inspires others to philosophy as well