Choice is hard. Even easy things, like when given the chance to hear my friend Jay (pictured above) play in the orchestra for a production of The Producers done by a local theater group. Free tickets! Easy choice, right? Except I was so aware that by choosing to do that I was choosing not to write, not to catch up on client work, not to exercise, not to figure out how to pay the bills etc.
That’s one part of the difficulty of choice, the idea that every door you open closes another. But there’s more to it than that. I think it’s related to “change is hard,” except that if the changes caused by choices go poorly, we have no one to blame but ourselves. “What was I thinking? Why did I do that?” or the ever popular “You’d think I would have known better...”
You know that little internal monologue, right? When you wish that past you would have made the choice that future you would have been happier with? I know I often find myself wishing for a little time machine – just a little one – to go back and have a talk with my 19-year old freshly-married self about financial habits. It’s been quite annoying, these past couple of decades, trying to unlearn and simultaneously fix the effects of some of the decisions back then. Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes the level of vituperative rhetoric leveled against my past self reaches some pretty harsh levels. Especially when I compare the NowMe to NowOtherFolks who seem to have somehow made all the right choices, and now seem to effortlessly float along in seas of financial security.
That’s the problem with projection – it’s taking away from myself. Rather than focusing on where I’m at, when I get in those moods I’m looking at where I was, and at where I think other people are, and (natural progression) where I think I should be. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll devote a little attention to the hopes of FutureMe, but that’s a very slippery slope either towards even more “shoulds” or a pessimistic “probably won’t”.
Not terribly helpful.
The problem is that I’m wearing a disguise and fooling myself. I’m acting as if PastMe has somehow, through making the choices he made, inflicted some harm on the FutureMe that was to come. And as I am identifying as that FutureMe, I am justifiably angry, right? Or else I am still identifying as PastMe, and feel guilty and bad for the horrible things I made happen to FutureMe (who has suddenly, magically, become someone other than myself).
You see where the error is, right? I know, it’s obvious, so let’s just assume this particular entry is for my benefit and you’re helping me out by being my audience. There’s one big, gargantuan error in either being the self-righteously injured FutureMe or the bumbling idiotic PastMe:
I’m never actually anything but NowMe.
PastMe was never PastMe. That’s a construct I’ve created in my head, some magical Frankensteinian concatenation of the full knowledge of consequences combined with the ability of choice. Since when did that ever happen? Sure, I can identify some of the consequences of a particular choice, but only after I no longer have the ability to actually make it. If I am in a position to actually make a choice, then the best I can do is make educated guesses based on experience. No one ever knows the full extent of the rippling consequences of any choice, not even Buddha (why else would he be so focused on now?) and certainly not PastMe.
Especially not this sanctimonious FutureMe identity I create when I want to feel injured. That poor victim, who feels so put upon and injured by the choices of that mythical PastMe. Does he ever give thought to the horrible catastrophes that he escaped due to those selfsame choices of PastMe? Not usually. And who is this “FutureMe” anyway? Any identity I have as anything other than just who I am right now is less substantial than the pixels on the screen, which at least have some quantifiable quantum physicality.
These ideas I have about PastMe and FutureMe are fictions. Like any fiction, they can be quite enjoyable, whether it’s a fiction about a horrible event or an expression of joy. Heck, it can be both – last night I found myself laughing uproariously at a fictional representation of a genocidal dictator. On some level, I have to think that Mel Brooks knew that his comedic genius in creating “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers was to help heal some of the cultural We should have known better that still exists.
We can do that on a more personal level. I can laugh at PastMe for his earnest bumbling (and also occasionally brilliant) efforts to figure out life. I can chuckle at FutureMe with his silly expectations and histrionic worries and admire him for his noble and grandiose ideas and schemes. They’re both amusing and heartbreakingly beautiful when I put them within a story framework. There’s also room in the frame for compassion, for feeling my heart reach out for that single Dad who was sure he’d never know love or success and that he’d wasted his life. There’s room to reach ahead to that idea of a FutureMe and say “Dude, chill. It will be ok.”
That’s the practice I’m going to suggest this week: give those fictional selves of Past and Future a break from the guilt (and credit) attached to choices. Taking off the masks of PastMe and FutureMe and remembering who I am: NowMe, just doing the best I can, making choices. Rather than worry about the consequences, maybe waiting with patient excitement to watch them unfold will be more enjoyable than guilt trips and anger.
We’ll see. What does FutureYou think?