There was a prolonged period of time where I maintained this unhealthy fantasy of what life would be like if I could go back to a certain point in time to make better choices. From an early age, even before seeing Back to the Future and being aware that science fiction writers speculated about time travel, I would often wander around out in our back yard dreaming of a past vacation and trying to completely and utterly insert myself back into it, by saying things like: “This time last week (month, year, etc.) we would have been getting on the plane to Florida. This time last week, we would be down at the beach.”
At some point in the history of my active imagination, I took to almost exclusively running fantastic scenarios of what the future would be like. Even after my little brother died, I mostly fantasized about the future. This probably stopped some time in my early thirties (finally, thank God) because I came to the realization that I had fantasized my way through my teens and twenties. Maybe it was reading Bill Clinton’s My Life at the age of 30 and seeing that he was already governor of Arkansas by then, while I was still a nobody of nothing, that made me aggressively assert myself over this part of me that could often spin out of control to the point where it seemed like it was running me or occupying me for days.
By then, another insidious form of fantasizing crept into the activity of the escapist demon, and this made him continually beg the question: what would happen if your consciousness was yanked out of your present self and dropped into your past self of five, ten, fifteen, etc. years ago? I am willing to concede that most human beings pause to reflect now on then on what was and what might have been. If we are honest with ourselves, we have plenty of regrets, but if we are kind to ourselves, we don’t obsess over them to the point where certain moments from the past become more crystal clear than the reality we are observing in the present.
But, I became obsessed with certain moments. I would imagine a series of prolonged events, where I was dropped into my self of five, ten, fifteen years for maybe a day or an hour, and whatever changes I made during that time or instructions I left for myself would hopefully change the future for the better, bit by bit, until I became a respectable so-and-so who was much further along with career and family, or a monk, or a priest, or in my more honest moments of reflection I could see the consequences backfiring and scenarios where, for instance, I saved my little brother from dying but I went on to become a heroin junkie or something.
I would relentlessly posit the question of when the best moment would be for me to be dropped into, were I to get to live entire chunks of my life over again. The arrival of my young son put a stop to a lot of this. Obviously, I would never want something like a do-over to happen now unless I had some guarantee from Jesus Himself that little guy would still get to be incarnated in a happy, safe, loving environment, namely, whatever family I ended up creating. But, if pursued from the angle of being a little more scientific, the odds of me being able to make another kid who was just like my son are slim to none–even if I kept myself from getting married until I met my wife, and we didn’t try to have a child until around the exact same time, there would surely be enough of a variation in time of conception that the one out of a million swimmers would be different, and my son might still have the same name and even look pretty much the same, but he wouldn’t be the same, either.
As such, the era of fantasizing about going back and changing the past has mostly ended, with the exception of the occasional desire to at the very least just try to prevent my little brother from dying. Maybe I am not even dropped into my past body, but my entire physical self is sent back and I am just standing outside the house while the family is eating with a knife in my hand to go slash the tires on his pickup truck.
For the longest time, that dinner would have been the gold standard for a life repeat start. It was the last time I saw my brother alive, and I was out of college, away from the influences of some friends, had just started dating someone who was reluctant for days to return “I love you” to me–which is to say she could have been dumped with few regrets. There was no later time in my past than that in which I would have wanted to be dropped.
But then, I started thinking about how nice it would have been to actually attempt a proper college experience instead of one that saw me mostly drinking with my nowhere friends or moving through those years by myself when I was on campus. So, it became appealing to send myself back to early August 1994, when I had finished the kitchen job at Embassy Suites, and was yet to meet anyone on campus. Who I met, what groups I joined, how hard I studied and what major I would choose became the topics of endless speculation for me. Would I try to become a pure mathematician, or simply get an accountant degree, playing it safe but getting a degree that would make me decent money after school? Would I convert to Catholicism and bypass girls altogether, putting myself on the path to become a priest? Or, perhaps I would go down to the church of my present denomination in Columbia, and get involved with its youth group, and if I met a life partner at that time, so be it. Or, maybe I really would hang on until I met my wife… it was all kind of open for speculation, but also for simply ruminating wistfully on nostalgia for a less stressful time.
But, after awhile, I began to ask: why stop there? Why not go back to the start of High School, and try to join every group possible, play as many sports as possible, study my ass off, and see if I couldn’t become the Valedictorian headed for Harvard–or at least one of the top five students with a scholarship or two? I could work to further repair my relationship with H, and ask all the girls I had crushes on to the movies or go to dances and ask them to dance with me and find out just how far my endless obsession with one of them being my soul mate would have gotten in the face of actually having to get to know her.
Of course, I then began to think about some of the really horrendous things I’d done to others prior to high school, and to myself, to give me issues I still deal with today. Things that could have been stopped, and people who could have been treated better. I said a lot of mean things to my older brother, as he was getting ready to leave. We were sick of sharing that room together, and I was always trying to put him down and make him feel guilty for being so desirous of getting out of the house, or just plain mean to him. The same with my little brother. I started calling him “dumb” relentlessly some time around the fifth or sixth grade. After a lot of thoughtful consideration, the best time for me to return to would have been some time in the fifth grade, before I started saying nasty things to both of my brothers, before I got caught up in wanting to play Little League baseball (I was terrible at it, of course).
But, for that matter, as I remembered my obsession with baseball, why not go back to the fourth grade when that all started, and save the money I’d spent on baseball cards (everyone kept telling me I needed to spend my savings on something, but I never should have listened to them–once I found something I liked to spend money on, the trend never stopped). And then, I would sometimes wonder if there was anything that I, a little seven or eight year old could have said to my oldest brother to make him decide not to be so mad at my dad, and reconcile himself with the family. Perhaps I could even convince my dad, as an extremely precocious five or six year old, not to even bother moving to Missouri, as we probably would have been happier in the long run as a family if we’d stayed in Colorado.
This is all why, if there is such a thing as reincarnation, people keep coming back. The tantalizing notion of getting to do it all over again and not make the same mistakes is just too great for most people, myself included. Let’s say I do live to be ninety-something, and the world has mostly gotten better and things aren’t as terrible as most people today think they will be. Wouldn’t I want to have another go of it?
But, who would I be?
I have considered this at some length as well. I am not completely convinced anyone, rich or poor, male or female, black or white, has it as good as they might project. Everyone has something good going for them, no matter who they are, if they aren’t living in utterly hopeless squalor. To be quite frank, I don’t think I would want to be black. This isn’t a racist statement, but one simply based on what I’ve observed with what is happening to people. I am trying to simply be honest, and answer the question to the best of my knowledge: who would I be if I could be reincarnated as anyone I want to be?
While being black does seem to have a certain appeal for me–and I am basing this just on what I’ve observed–being black gives you access to a certain kind of community that being white does not. The black community is more authentic and generally more connected at the heart and soul. White clubs and interest groups generally have little or no appeal for me. Even the Presbyterian church draws me to it more for the liturgy and the confessional aspect of it than the chance to connect with other (mostly) white people. In the liberal world, being black as a certain kind of cred to it that being white does not. You have experienced pain and suffering we have not, therefore, what you have to say about our society comes off as more genuine, authentic, etc. and you are more respected by a certain liberal mindset than others. But, it probably isn’t for me. The negative aspect of being black, which is becoming more and more obvious to those of us who aren’t exposed to it on a regular basis, makes me think that I couldn’t handle it. However, if the future was one where pretty much all white families are no longer religious, but a lot of black families still are, I would likely choose to be black.
There are similar considerations for being male and female. In wealthier, more liberal areas of the country, growing up as a girl seems to have certain advantages. As a male, I can speak more about the negative aspects of being a male, and I think that a lot of these stem from me really discovering my manhood at a very late age and never quite fitting in with the bulk of masculinity. The male groups in high school and college were mostly impenetrable or full of a lot of joshing and ribbing that I could never quite ascertain if it was put upon me as a kind of initiation rite to be accepted into the group or if I was being teased and bullied for being too different. Being male has its clear advantages, but there are also pressures around performance and speaking up, and this relentless obsession guys have with sports that makes it probably a non-starter for my ideal next life. Certainly, if I had a long talk with the angels helping me decide my next life, and they were adamant that I would be most happy in a celibate, priestly or monkish kind of life, I would choose to be a male. And if I was told that the likelihood of me being born a girl into a house where I would be treated well and given opportunities to succeed as a woman was pretty slim–that the likelihood was greater that I would fall into a cycle of abusive relationships with deadbeat dads–I would probably choose to be born a man again.
Poverty is, of course, where a lot of notions of being reincarnated start to seem kind of absurd. Well over 90% of the families in the world live in conditions that I am pretty sure I or anyone else who is given the chance to decide wouldn’t want to experience. The middle class here in the western world is shrinking, and the wealthy and upper middle class are having fewer and fewer children. If my metaphysics are coupled with reality, I get a clear probability that I would be born into a grinding sort of poverty. I think I could possibly accept this if my family were still at least somewhat intelligent, full of some drive to better themselves or at least be curious about their world, and weren’t complete redneck slobs or the equivalent of that elsewhere. However, I would have to think long and hard if the bardo angels told me I was still kind of rolling the dice, and may or may not get the family I am asking for.
But, all that said, if I were to pick the perfect next life, I would likely first want to know about my mom and little brother from this life–where have they ended up? The same thing with my wife and son (and any future child we have). How does that work? Does everyone connect in the in-between, and then go back out to pursue more lives with more people? If I was pretty reassured that all my loved ones from this life were okay, I would likely want the rich kid’s existence in New York City–going to private schools and getting exposed to art, theater, music every single week. I go on to get a job in fashion, and be some kind of Sex in the City kind of character, until I meet an acceptable rich spouse after trying many different partners, and we live the good life with two perfect little blonde kids until we die at the ripe old age of ninety-something. It seems kind of lame to say that, but I am pretty convinced now that I know myself as well as I think I ever will that I am really not strong enough of a soul to endure a lot of hardships.
The hardships I have faced–the challenges and struggles of a soul who never seemed to quite align with his Midwestern white body and all of the potential advantages that would have entailed–but also the challenges presented by parents who were pretty out of step themselves with the rest of the world–my dad’s hermit behavior and my mom’s religious mania–having two older adopted brothers who never seemed to take to the family and a younger biological brother who died way too young. These aren’t especially unique hardships or even the most challenging ones anyone on the planet has ever had to face, but they really probably did me in to the point where I’ve had to struggle to set myself on a decent course–a good sort of life that I should have started trying to live probably twenty years prior to when I started trying to live it.
Yes, I get all of the arguments for challenges in life making us who we are, making us have more character, be stronger people, be more empathetic of others and the problems they face. But, I can’t help but think that a nice, long sheltered life of privilege where money is never a concern for anyone and people always smile at you and seek your approval because you are pretty and they want you to shine some of that pretty girl light on them–such a life must be grand, exquisite, lovely, etc. and make a soul an all-around happier soul.
Even with the potential negative consequences–you become immune to the problems of humanity to the point where you never lift a finger to help anyone, you have such a distorted, skewed picture of reality that you help fund programs that inevitably bring the downfall of humanity, or help get politicians that do the same elected. You carry a certain unconscious contempt for everyone who isn’t rich, lives in NYC and gets to travel wherever and whenever they please. Your lifestyle is possible due to the misery of tens of thousands, instead of maybe dozens (as in the rest of us schlubs who buy cheap clothes made by sweatshop labor and do a minor amount of polluting of the planet). You get bored easily, and dump boyfriends when the sex or conversation stop being interesting, whichever happens first.
However, the life of such a person, likely to be a female, does have an overwhelming appeal. Maybe if it were possible for us to “try on” each others’ lives for just a few months? We can see what it is like to live in the shoes of pretty much everyone. This could lead to a much greater amount of empathy, right? It’s sort of like having term limits for congresspeople and presidents. If you are allowed to stay in office of a body and life of an affluent person too long, then you start to abuse your power and privilege.
In all truth, I think that unless I were permitted to live a perfect sort of life, free of any worries at all and full of a lot of art and fancy dining, I am not sure I would want to try on any other person other than myself. I could be wrong. I might go on to meet any number of people from other walks of life when I become a pastor, and begin to see a certain appeal to being old, infirm, poor, marginalized. It’s not the appeal we would ordinarily have for how we would want to live on this earth. It’s a deeper appeal than simply wanting to build character and feel virtuous.
The appeal is more around being closer to God and being free of material possessions and all of the concerns and cares that come with them. Those of us who marry into middle class worlds are expected to maintain certain semblances of being stable and possessing things. We don’t want to live without a washer and dryer. We must keep our lawns green. We need to drive cars that aren’t too old, and have televisions and computers and phones that are nice and new. Owning but two outfits would be obscene. We need to read a lot of the latest articles in all of the liberal publications, and be on top of the trendy restaurants and movies and music. There is a certain pressure, whether you are a more conservative or a more liberal middle class person, to have certain things and maintain a certain level of connectivity with the outside world. And, just wait until we have kids–then, all of these needs for certain things are magnified times a thousand–we have to keep up with other parents and our kids have to keep up with other kids.
And, all of the expenses that come with this. If you want to be a marginally acceptable middle-class person in most parts of the United States, you should be prepared to have a household income of of about $50K per adult. As children arrive and get older, this probably goes up to about $85K per adult.
Do I want my life to be perfect? I don’t think so, but I don’t want to live with problems that I could be solving, either. The goal is to winnow down the things that aren’t especially necessary, and if I find myself living in a house again, not to accrue more stuff just because people are giving it to you, or you are able to buy it.
The process of collecting junk doesn’t end with the material world, though. I am incredibly adept at getting interested in a random subject for a few weeks with such a zeal that I want to read all of the most highly rated books on the topic, and then I drop it, and am left with books I don’t especially feel like reading. But, I might be interested in them again, someday.
However, it goes beyond just books on shelves or random notes on hard drives. The brain becomes a cloudy, messy place where any sense of real direction and purpose is lost.
The way forward, I think, is to look at what things have consistently kept my attention and sustained efforts throughout my adult life. I no longer feel guilty about hammering something like this out, or starting a writing project that never gets finished. I like the purity of the process of writing–really, it’s a matter of having a tactile experience connected with visual/symbolic representations of my thoughts that flow in a linear way instead of the general mess of non-linear chaos that is my unfocused mind. I am forming something concrete and yet it is mostly ephemeral as well–it won’t be stored for the ages, or even recalled by me in my lifetime. Yet, the concreteness of the words that appear has a certain quality of firmness that lends it more meaning than simply wandering around the house muttering to myself would.
So, then–what things are the things I will carry on with me until I die?
I am not going to ever become the perfect man as I imagine the perfect man should be. If I take away some of my imperfections, I inevitably raise the volume on some of the others. The perfect man is no longer caught up in sex of any kind, he is a vegan, he is well-versed in many areas of knowledge but also takes time for physical exercise–probably yoga and swimming, never becomes too spiritual or too materialistic. He helps others at all times. He is a hippie kind of guy minus the drugs who practices some of the best traits of Gandhi, Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day. The perfect man has no interest in his own advancement or acclaim. Nobody will remember him, because his acts are many small ones, rather than the great movments.
The perfect man doesn’t need to write because he is perfectly aligned with his words, deeds and God. He doesn’t need to collect anything, inside his brain or his home, because he takes with him the knowledge he needs and leaves the rest behind. He doesn’t become overly involved with anything, except helping others.
I won’t ever be the perfect man because I have appetities for things. I do like the occasional drink or two or three. I like reading books and writing. I am caught up in the culture of my time to the degree that I still halfway pay attention to it. But, I will strive to be the perfect man, more and more with each passing year. If old age finds me without a spouse and my children and grandkids are all able to take care of themselves, I will certainly consider the monastery if they will have me, but until then, I do have to walk the tightrope between the materialistic demands of my throwaway culture and the spiritual yearning that comes back around every single month.
I won’t ever be the perfect man because I don’t think Jesus wants to work with me if I am perfect, and perfectly so due to my own efforts. What room do I have for God if I’ve made myself into a little god here on this earth?
I would like to think that we all get together after we die and regroup and compare notes, and discuss at length about how so-and-so ended up being such an asshole or even a criminal, while this other soul refrained from such a course. In a way, everything and nothing we do matters all at once. Everything matters, except it matters for a world that transcends this one both temporally and spatially. And, nothing really matters as it pertains to this world alone–all of the accolades you receive for whatever you do don’t amount to shit in the long run.
Naturally, all of this is speculation, and I would be the first to admit I have no idea what really happens when we die or why some of us seem to have happier lives than others. The insight one gains by being who one is is always limited, no matter how much you like to think you’ve lived a little and known a few things.