For many fans of Doctor Who, among our favorite episodes are the ones where the Doctor encounters his earlier selves – which inevitably leads to arguments! Although intended primarily for comic value, I presume, there is an important insight in these episodes. If I were to meet an earlier me, I would encounter a person very different from the one I am today, and I can easily imagine arguments ensuing, as I who I am today tried to share what I consider the wisdom of experience with my younger self, and my younger self rebukes me for having gone over to the dark side, from “his” perspective. (Notice how hard it is to speak of such things!)
As I began watching Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith again recently, this too gave me pause, as I watched characters discuss evil as a point of view – the importance of point of view is a theme that runs throughout the films. Do I now hold views that I would have considered “evil” earlier in my life, and do I now consider the views of my earlier self “evil”? My hope is that I have discovered, as Luke Skywalker eventually did, a middle way. Just as the attempt of the Jedi to avoid all attachment left one open to temptation to the other extreme of being carried along by one’s passions, I hope that I have found a middle ground between fundamentalism and atheism, just as Luke found he could let his concern for his sister enrage him and his compassion for his father stop him from going too far. But I doubt that my younger self would have accepted this argument – I saw everything in black and white, once upon a time, as we all did at some point.
This led me to ask myself what, if anything, I might wish to tell my earlier self? Would I warn “him” against the perils of fundamentalism? As I thought about it, I decided I probably wouldn’t. I gained much from that period in my life, and just as I would not go back to tell my childhood self in kindergarten things I would not then be ready to understand, I think I might go back and observe myself, but would try to avoid tinkering. If I had not passed through the fundamentalist phase that followed my experience of being “born again”, for all I know I might have no faith today rather than the mature faith that I do. Adolescence is a healthy step on the way to maturity, and it cannot be bypassed.
Thinking further, I decided that this same principle applies to lots of other aspects of my life. There was a time before I really got into “classical” music, and then a time when Shostakovich and Bartok were beyond my range of appreciation. I had to work my way through Rachmaninov and Bruckner first, and had I gone by another path, I might not value the music of Atterberg and Korngold the way that I do.
I personally suspect that time travel is not possible – I am inclined to think that the past is not a static entity that is still ‘out there somewhere’. But even if it were, I do not think I would go back and tamper with it. The past is there to be learned from, and there are probably very few instances where we could go back and avoid the mistakes that we have learned from, because mistakes are one of the principal ways in which we learn.