Changing the Future

March 29th, 2012

In the movie Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen is obsessing about Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence, which says that we’re doomed to repeat the past over and over again. “Great,” Allen moans, “that means I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again. It’s not worth it.”

In Nietzsche’s, more serious, words,

If given the opportunity to live your life over and over again ad infinitum, forced to go through all of the pain and the grief of existence, would you be overcome with despair? Or would you fall to your knees in gratitude?

How do you feel about your past? Do you feel like you’re stuck in an endless cycle of regret, or are you making choices now that you would be happy and grateful to repeat all the days of your life?

If you had the opportunity to relive some part of your past, even 8 minutes, what would you do differently? This is part three in a series on regrets. Part one looks at reframing regret. Part two looks at the giant assumption that regret makes. Part three looks at the role of imagination to change the future.

The movie Source Code is a time travel tale. It’s not so much about traveling back in time, as it is about time reassignment. The hero’s mission is to enter into the body of one of the passengers for the final 8 minutes before a bomb explodes in a train, and find out who the bomber is in order to prevent future attacks that are even larger and more devastating than the train explosion. He can’t prevent the train wreck, but he can learn from it to prevent worse destruction. As it says in the movie,

 The program wasn’t designed to alter the past. It was designed to affect the future.

It’s a different spin on the usual time travel fantasies. In The Terminator, John Connor sends a soldier back in time to fight Arnie, and protect the woman who gave birth to him. If she dies, future John Connor will vanish from existence. The soldier ends up sleeping with her, time travel must do crazy things to your hormones, and the product of their passion is Connor himself. In this genre, time is linear and the future is predictable.

Movies focused on parallel universes take a different approach to time. Each decision you make causes the universe to fork, with each fork heading in new directions. Therefore, you can’t rewrite history, you can only create alternate futures. If you could travel back and kill Hitler, this would create a different universe in which Hitler is dead while the original universe would remain unchanged. (read on for more about changing the future)

I don’t know about time travel and parallel universes, but I do know that we ALL time travel through our memories. This is where imagination becomes so important. How can we use our memory’s imagination to create a better future?

Psychodrama is a form of therapy that became popular in the 1970s. It’s a combination of psychiatry and drama, where you get to reenact past trauma, and play act different outcomes. In effect you use your imagination to reclaim your power and to remind yourself that you have options; there are multiple future scenarios. It is said that the creator of Psychodrama, Jacob Moreno told Freud,

You analyze people’s dreams, I make their dreams come true.

There is a lot of power in imagination and reenacting the past with different outcomes. I’ve always been inspired by this story from South America.

Pamplona Alta is a shanty town on the outskirts of Lima. The town hangs precariously on a mud hill, 80% unemployment, no sewers, infrequent running water and desperate poverty. A wave of refugees flooded Pamplona Alta from the 1970s to 1990s, claiming the unused land. They slowly created a life for themselves, saving to buy one brick at a time and those who were most successful added rainproof roofs. In the 1990s, a new wave of refugees arrived, escaping political violence and even worse poverty in the cities. Then the older residents had a dilemma. They barely had enough to support their communities, but the needs of the new arrivals could tip them over the edge. On the other hand, they knew what it was like to be a refugee community and wanted to help the new refugees. What they did was create a reenactment of their own arrival in Pamplona 20 years before. By remembering their own homelessness, the trauma of moving to a desolate place and trying to eke out an existence, they were able to feel compassion for the new arrivals and find a way to include them.

The point is that memory is powerful and imagination, when used for constructive purpose to reframe the past, can help to shape the future. We can’t travel back in time, but we can live as if every 8 minutes is an opportunity to help shape the future by reframing the past.

Many of the religious and cultural stories, such as Easter, hold a lot more meaning for me when read in this light. Easter is not so much a literal event as it is a symbol of imagining alternate future scenarios. The Easter story is all about the parallel experience of regret and rebirth, pain and passion. We live with memories from the past and imagination for a better future. If you live with integrity and conviction, your choices will co-create an emerging future even if the path includes loss and regret. Every 8 minutes, or 3 days, or whatever time frame it is, you get to choose the shape of your life which is open and dynamic.

Leadership expert, Margaret Wheatley said,

The future cannot be determined. It can only be experienced as it is occurring. Life doesn’t know what it will be until it notices what it has become.

No matter how much you wish for certainty, life doesn’t work that way. However, not knowing the future is incredibly empowering. You get to help create what you want to see in the future. The future emerges in the same way ant trails emerge and paths emerge on a campus. First, one person walks across the grass from one building to another. Another person takes a different route across the grass. Soon there are several lightly marked paths. Eventually one clear path across the grass emerges and most people use it. No single person designed the path. There was no meeting to agree on a particular path. It wasn’t even a conscious decision. The path organized itself around the choices of those walking it. It emerged as people unwittingly created it. It was co created.

The path from regret to hope is much like the path from one job to another, or one relationship to another, or any other major life change. It is more delicate than a grass path, but similar principles apply. You step out, feel your way forward and allow the path to emerge. Change happens within first, and then change manifests around you. You intuit your next steps as others intuit theirs, and before you know it the future has become a very present reality.

As business strategist Harriet Rubin said,

To see the future you have to travel on the rough edge of experience.

That experience will include regret, memory and imagination. Keep going. Keep believing in change. Believe that your past can be transformed, your regrets reframed and your dreams can come true.

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  4. naomi says:

    I love not knowing the future. I think it can be tough though when you feel like you are in a pit and just want to know that something good is going to happen soon. Good blog Ian

  5. Jenny says:

    I really appreciate the fork imagery, and that we have to feel our way forward for the path to emerge.

  6. [...] part in a series on regret. The first piece looks at some of the most common regrets. The third piece looks at the power of imagination to change the future. This article uncovers regret’s [...]