Twofish's Blog

July 20, 2006

Undoing the past

Filed under: academia, massachusetts institute of technology, personal — twofish @ 5:53 am

I mentioned before that it is a good exercise to try to post these things in public.  In posting these things in public I change and edit certain things, and when I end up with something that I can talk about in public then it gives me the ability to think about them a bit more dispassionately.

Let’s start with the first basic constraint

1) You can’t change the past

You can’t literally change the past, but

1) You can ritualistically change the past, and

2) You have to think about how the past would have been different if you want to make any plans for the future.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m going to be doing next year.

What’s making the process difficult is that the way one normally analyzes one’s options is to play what if games, and the trouble with playing what-if games is that when you start thinking about the consequences of events, and when you apply them to past events, things get very painful.  What if I had done this.  What if this event had or had not happened.

In my last year at MIT, something extremely bad happened.  I’ve worked out a pretty detailed timeline for what my life would have looked like had that bad thing not happened, that assumes that each point, the best possible outcome would have happened.  Suppose things had been different.  What might have happened was that my grades would not have suffered, in which case I would gotten into MIT or Harvard grad school.  Alternatively, I would have been under huge pressure to stay on campus and close to the family, which meant that I would have been likely to have gone to UMass Amherst, and would have pretty frequently gone to MIT.

Among other things, this means that I would not have ended up at UT Austin, which means that I would not have met my wife, and that means that in the alternate world my kids would have been different.  But I would have still probably gotten an astrophysics Ph.D. somewhere, and if I had gotten it at MIT or Harvard, then I would be in a better position to get a tenure track job somewhere.  It also means that since I would have been seeing a lot of people that I knew at MIT on a day-to-day basis, my relationships with them would have been very different than they were in this timeline.  Since this timeline assumes best possible outcomes, I assume certain things happened and assign certain roles to certain people.

O.K. the bad thing happened.  I ended up at UT Austin.  However, I didn’t hit the second fundamental constraint

2) You cannot raise the dead

Because I didn’t hit that constraint, I could still “push” the timeline back to where it originally was “supposed” to go.  So I get the Ph.D.  I marry my wife.  I have my kids.  And things look almost like the original timeline.  I’m in Austin, and not Cambridge.  It’s close enough so that I don’t worry about the details.  I’ve fixed things back to where things “should” have been.
And then the second bad thing happens.  Someone dies.

At this point, the damage to the timeline is irreversible.  You can’t push things back completely.

So you start bargaining with God.  I know I can’t raise the dead, but can I still get A?  Yes.  Can I still get B?  No.  Can I still get C?  Yes.  And so forth.

After you finish bargaining with God.  You find that you still get to keep certain things.  You have to let go of B, D.  But you find that you can still keep A, C, and maybe E.  And sometimes, when the moon is right, and the wind is still, you can almost pretend that you are living in the original dream timeline. And when that happens, you aren’t reminded that the bad thing that happened, did happen.

And I read a magazine article, and I realize

1) that I’m not living in the dream time line

2) there are two key facts that I was previously unaware of that make the dream time line more plausible if the bad things didn’t happen

3) the dream time line is a bunch better than the one I currently live in, and the worst thing is that
4) it’s likely that I am going be constantly reminded in the future that I am not in the dream time line.

OK.  I’ll feel rotten for a week, but I’ll deal.  I’ve survived a lot worse things before.

But….. but I’ll get over it.  The annoying then is that I could have learned them five years ago, and felt rotten for a week then, and adjusted.

One reason that I think its a good thing that I’m sharing this in public, is that I’m reading this, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable or irrational.  I’m discussing what I’m feeling, what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and it seems like something a reasonable, rational, normal human being would do in a bad situation.  So I’m going to have to deal with this.  I’ve had to deal with a lot of other things.

This is in contrast with talking with a doctor or therapist about it, or someone who has the habits of a doctor or therapist.  A doctor is used to dealing with patients, and if I were to tell this story to a doctor, it’s likely that the person would treat the story clinically, and that would make me feel totally rotten.  I’m not ill, and don’t treat me as if I am.  Don’t charge my insurance.  I’ve told you one of my stories, now it’s only fair if you tell me one of yours.  Don’t be a doctor.  Be a human being.

This gets into issues of power.  The doctor is the powerful one.  She knows your secrets.  You don’t know hers.  If there is an issue, its your fault since you are the patient.  Same with admissions boards.  It’s not their fault for having stupid admissions criteria.  It’s your fault for not following them.

Gee, it’s wonderful to have power.  Nothing is your fault.  You are perfect.  You get to help all of these people at no real emotional cost to you.  (Cough…  Cough…)

Now that I think about it, yes there are two key details that make the dream timeline more plausible, but there are probably fifty key details that I don’t know about that make the dream timeline less plausible.  In particular for the dream time line to work, certain people have to act in certain ways and be willing to take certain risks, and I don’t think that they would be willing to do that.

Now that I see what I’m writing I don’t think that I’m the crazy one here.

But I still feel rotten.

But I’ll deal.

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