Hardly a day passes when I don’t travel in time. Revisiting my past, I imagine how life might have changed had I acted differently. Now I’m envisioning a different present day, which typically involves me having it easier.
Everyone engages in this behavior to some degree. Why do you think humans appear obsessed with creating a time machine? We can all travel back in time and view our past mistakes, but we’re helpless to change them. With a time machine we could take our imaginations one step further and actually act differently.
This is not at all a healthy mindset.
The past is unchangeable. No matter how often we revisit our past failures, we cannot change the outcomes. What do we gain by dwelling on them? Absolutely nothing. We face the same present when we return from the past.
Frequently traveling back in time can hurt us more deeply than the very failures we regret. Instead of dealing with reality, we create a fictional one. How can we thrive in the present if we’re arguing with reality?
Time travel hurts us not just with the fruitless thoughts it inspires and the false reality it creates. There is an opportunity-cost component. When we time travel we pretend to change our presents by changing our pasts, instead of acting to change our presents in the present. We play pretend instead of acting.
Only the present exists. It is the only state in which we can act, the only state from which we can effect change.
Is your present state really so poor anyway? While some surely find themselves in terrible situations, many time travelers merely find the present unable to match their unreasonable expectations. Instead of accepting the good and working to change the unsatisfactory, our minds drift into the past and wonder where we went wrong.
The next time you catch yourself reimagining the present by changing the past, ask yourself this question. Could you have acted differently? If you knew then what you know now, perhaps, but could you have known it then? Was your mind ready to internalize that critical concept?
As a teenager my father dispensed some great advice. I heeded none of it, to my own peril. When I time travel, I often imagine life if I had listened to my old man. Reality returns when I remember my mindset at the time. I couldn’t internalize that advice. I wasn’t ready.
Were you ready? Could you have even lived that fantasized life? Or would you have gotten in your own way no matter how you acted in the past?
We can time travel whenever we want. We can even learn about ourselves, and perhaps a nugget about human nature, in the process. But to wish a different past and a different future is folly. Only from the present can we change the present.