Monday, August 30, 2010

Sobering Thoughts about Time Travel and Life Decisions

I have a Ph.D. in English from Duke University. Studying there some 35 years ago was a peak experience. The learning was intense, and it changed my life. Today, I use the research, reasoning, writing and editing skills I refined there to great advantage in my work. Also, thanks to that education, I have an acutely sensitive appreciation for the arts and literature, which greatly adds to my enjoyment of life.

Still, I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had I chosen to study psychology instead of English. In my late 20s, I was equally fascinated with both areas. I sometimes wonder if a psychology degree would have served my current work at least as well, if not better.

I have no regrets, however. I don't indulge in time-machine fantasies such as, "If only I could go back in time and change what I did in graduate school..."

I've been watching the History Channel "The Universe" series on DVD, and of course they have a segment on time travel. I trust they decided to deal with this topic because of the public's fascination for it. The segment addresses the question, "Is time travel possible?" The producers did an excellent job of maintaining the suspense of this question while laying out the theoretical possibilities along with the technical impracticalities. The unstated conclusion: Time travel as we know it will never happen. No human being will ever travel back in time to change something about the past.

For those of you who indulge in regret or "if only" fantasies, let me tell you something. Say you could go back in time and correct an event that you considered a horrible mistake. The consequences in the future would not be as subtle and benevolent as you imagine. The changes would be radical and shocking. Everything that happens has consequences. And those consequences have consequences, involving countless other people as the consequences expand into the future.

If I could go back in time and get a Ph.D. in psychology instead of English, I wouldn't be sitting here in my office in the Texas Hill Country with my wife and cats. No, everything about my life would be different. I can't even imagine where I would be or what I would be doing or even if my different life would be a happy one. I might even be dead right now. And much about the world around me would be different, too. The number of new consequences that would cascade from that one small change in the past is staggering. It's a scary thought.

Well, not really scary, because it's impossible.

So consider this:

1. Be aware that your present moment is the result of untold influences that are the product of uncountable chains of consequences triggered by actions in the distant past. There never was any such thing as "destiny." You've always lived in a world of where you and other people do things that affect your life.

2. Be mindful and appreciate your present moment. It's what you have. Don't wish that it were different. Relish it.

3. Rather than indulge in regret, learn from what happens to you.

4. Give thought to your decisions going forward. Respect the fact that your actions will have consequences in the real world. More than you'll ever know.

I hope you can use these thoughts to make your journey a little more productive and satisfying, though I suppose they're a little "heavy." I guess I never would have written a blog post like this if I hadn't gotten that Ph.D. in English so many years ago....

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use this photo purchased from


Sean said...

I agree... someone people live in the past, bogged down with how things went, how things could have been different, and focusing on things that happened before. But you can never change that, and it takes away from focusing on the other two time periods: the now and the future.

The now slips away immediately; we experience it in every decision we make. And while it is important, it too becomes the past immediately, so one shouldn't fret too much over the now.

That leaves the future. You can change your future. The future is where you'll spend the rest of your life. I believe all decisions should be made with an eye to the future, and let other people worry about the past.

It doesn't matter where we came from, but rather, where we are going.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

We are peas in a pod. I hold an English Lit degree, but considered psychology heavily as a major. I also dabbled for over a year in film school.

Veronica Messegee said...

I don't usually watch t.v., but every once in a while I get the urge. I turn to hulu for my fix. During my last craving, I stumbled upon a show called "Being Erica."

The premise is that a woman (who things never work out for) has reached the end of her rope. A 'therapist' appears and gives her the ability to go back in time to undo her regrets.

The show was well done because Erica learns that when she goes back, she is unable to make the change that she felt would positively affect her life in the future. There is always some unknown situation that prevents it, despite her changing her actions. When she goes back in time, her perception is the only thing that she is able to alter.

With time, she realizes that her regrets have more to do with her attitudes than what her actions were. She uses her ability to go back in time to gain understanding so that she can make changes in her present life.

We all can time travel in the way that the character Erica does through reflection and learning something from our past.

I really enjoyed your article!