Earlier this week, I asked the Twitterverse for a time machine. I’ve had a particularly crappy week. The crappiness of this week is the direct result of decisions I made nearly a decade ago, decisions made by some past version of myself, decisions that seemed like a good idea at the time and that I’ve largely forgotten about. But it’s funny how the past comes back to haunt you and screws up an otherwise perfectly lovely week. So I figure a time machine’s in order; go back a few years and smack some sense into that guy who I used to be. A heroic quest to warn myself about those crappy decisions I was making and how they were bound to have untold consequences on my future. Don’t fuck it up.
I think about time travel a lot. It’s more than a little possible that I watch entirely too much Star Trek. I don’t ordinarily think about traveling to my own past; I often spend more time thinking about the physics of time travel or the philosophical implications of it, the limitations, the paradoxes. Sometimes I’ll day dream about traveling to some point in the distant past to watch some historical event play itself out or the distant future to see if we, as a species, make it out of the twenty-first century. Fortunately for me (or the time-space continuum), the ever-wise Rev. Danny Fisher reminded me of the inherent dangers of time travel and the sage advice of Grandpa Simpson: “If you ever travel back in time, don’t step on anything because even the tiniest change can alter the future in ways you can’t imagine.”
Which got me thinking. Would I go back in time and warn a younger, more naive version of myself about the path I was setting out on? Would I go back and stop him from making certain mistakes, persuade him that what seems right at that moment will, from the vantage point of the future, look like a spectacularly bad idea?
(As something of an aside here, how depressingly egotistical is it of me to fantasize about traveling through time only to tell my younger self not to make some stupid decision which, in the grand scheme of things, is pretty harmless? If I actually had access to a time machine, aren’t there far more altruistic things I could devote my time traveling to? Assuming that I was somehow able to skirt around the whole ontological paradox thing? Ego, ego, egoâ€¦.)
In Yogacara Buddhism, we talk about karmic fruits — the results of choices and decisions we make at every turn — ripening in the future. What we choose to do today will invariably create our futures. Our present is the direct result of our choices from the past. So if I went back in time, if I traveled back to the 1990s and found a past-me, and stepped on his plans in order to keep him from fucking up my present, what would the consequences be? Who’s to say how the complex web of interconnected events would play itself out were I to make one less bad decision? Or one more good one?
Because the fact of the matter is that where I’m at here in the present is, all in all, pretty good. It’s not perfect (but, hey, it’s samsara so it can’t be perfect), but it’s pretty great. I have much to be thankful for, and if I were to change even this one bad decision, how would that affect the rest of the good decisions? It’s impossible to say. If I had the ability to time travel, should I risk it? Would the whole web of interconnections come undone? Would I inadvertently miss the chance to meet my lovely and talented wife? The woman who brings so much joy to my life?
Causality is funny thing. Each of our decisions — from the most intentional and well thought-out to the most mindless and mundane — create this samsaric web of karma that we’re bound up in. And we’re sort of stuck with it. What we do in the past inevitably comes back to haunt us. We don’t have much choice in the matter. All we have is this moment. And it’s in this moment that we have the choice to act on the fruits of our own karma, invariably planting new karmic seeds that will, in turn, ripen in the future.
Lacking a time machine, there’s not much to do but to keep moving forward, and take those lessons of my past and make more mindful choices in the hope that these karmic seeds will in turn create a batter future. It’s the only kind of time travel any of us can do.