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Nothing to Undo

August 15, 2011
Computer message; "Nothing to Undo"

"Nothing to Undo"... if only that were so

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
Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Walter
    August 15, 2011 at 22:22 | #1

    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 a matter of modulating the high and the lows.

    Often when I see stories of parents that kill their children then themselves (due to custody sometimes), I think – if only they modulated a bit better – kept the highs from being too high and the lows from being to low. To me ideological extremism is similar as well; lack of guardrails.

  2. August 16, 2011 at 04:07 | #2

    … and what makes you think you can change your future? ;-)

  3. dof
    August 16, 2011 at 06:39 | #3

    Walter: “It’s a matter of modulating the high and the lows.”

    Much as winning in Vegas is a matter of not losing. The question is; how? And are you saying we should be careful not to enjoy anything too much?

    Ole Phat Stu: It depends what movie I’m in.

  4. Walter
    August 16, 2011 at 10:39 | #4

    And are you saying we should be careful not to enjoy anything too much?

    Yes – that is what I’m saying.

    There’s something utterly narcissist that your (or my) enjoyment should be the guiding raison d’etre.

    I think that I have a responsibility not to be too rich (because it has moral baggage) or too poor (because it would be unfair to those close to me) or too buzzed, etc…

    A useful life of labor, education, social interactions, responsibilities and achievements is also good, no? Instead of enjoyment being one of excess sensdations – spread it around among the sum that you do for self and others.

  5. dof
    August 16, 2011 at 21:51 | #5

    Walter, I think you may have gone well beyond the scope of this post. It isn’t clear to me where I suggested submerging in pleasures of the flesh to the exclusion of all else. But since you bring it up I have a bone to pick with the idea of “balance”, as if every person has some responsibility to be all things to all people. Why does everyone have to do all those things?

    Some people can’t live without certain passions. It’s hard to imagine how great art, literature, or science would ever be created by “well-balanced” people. Achieving a personal balance that works is the work of a lifetime. Everyone’s a different mix, and that’s fine with me. A “balanced” society might be full of all kinds of people. Or even a whole society might be “unbalanced” in some way and survive by trading whatever they excel at with other societies that emphasize different things.

  6. EdK
    August 17, 2011 at 07:21 | #6

    Sounds similar to OCD-type issues I have, yours are related to events in the long term. Mine are based around near term events (did I leave the coffee pot on?) but are based on uncertainty and not regret. I often feel obligated to check, and re-check, to make “sure”.

    Medication has helped to make this manageable and reduce the stress level considerably. I have noticed a lessening of emotion and an increase in “don’t give a $h17″ attitude at times, but it has been worth it to mitigate the doubt and uncertainty, FWIW.

  7. Karen
    August 18, 2011 at 12:30 | #7

    Your mileage may vary remarkably with meds. What I take now helps with the downs while not inhibiting the ups too much… but it took several years of working with a med-savvy psychiatrist to find the right magic pill combo that worked without significant side effects. Insurance covers it grudgingly and copays are always high for doctor visits.

    When I find myself ruminating on the bits of my past where I could have done better — sometimes MUCH better — I have to remind myself that I did the best I could with the information and mental state available to me. I tell myself the only real failure is not to learn from it. And sometimes I have to keep repeating that quite forcefully to myself.

  8. Lenoxus
    August 19, 2011 at 13:01 | #8

    If the interface of an iPod is any hint, the secret to this mystical “undoing” is simply to have someone or something shake you vigorously.

  9. Lucas
    August 20, 2011 at 17:11 | #9

    “And if either me did change anything, what’s the likelihood that I’d just have different regrets?”

    I’m reminded of a Star Trek episode where Q allowed Picard to change his past, not getting a stupid bar fight that almost killed him. When he experienced the future that resulted from this change, he found that he was living an unambitious life in which he took too few risks and never achieved anything of note.

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