dear future me, I hope you don't regret this
Sometimes when I am writing something, I catch myself imagining how my future self will feel when I look back upon it. Copywriters talk about editing for your critics, yet my harshest critic will always be the nebulous image of my older self.
Many people have a contemptuous attitude towards their younger selves. They talk about what idiots they were, how they knew nothing, they had no idea what we were doing. Then, fast forward a few years and they say that again. And again.
I disagree with this dysfunctional sort of self-hate. Yes, self-hate. Talk all you like about how much you have changed, how every cell in our bodies is replaced over 7 years, yadda yadda. Still, you are you. You are youer than you. There is no one alive who is youer than you. We change and shift and somehow remain ourselves. Very few people get to shrug that off and no one seems to recover from their childhood.
In Meno by Plato, Socrates says that we already know everything and the act of learning involves recalling it, recognising what is within us. 'Be of good cheer, and try to recollect what you do not know, or rather what you do not remember. ' As if we are born infinitely smart, forget everything and have to recall it all.
It brings to mind the Tralfadorians in Slaughterhouse Five. If you have not read it, they are aliens which see all time at once without a distinction between past, present, future. Everything which will ever happen has already happened for them. They know how their universe will end, though they do not try to prevent it because it has already happened. Vonnegut describes their books as consisting of verbal images which are all experiences at once and create a single overall beautiful picture;
"All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”
Our lives are not like that. We cannot see everything at once. When we perform an action, there is no way to even begin to comprehend the potential impact and consequences of it. Avoiding embarrassing a hypothetical future self is impossible. Perhaps we do already know everything (somehow) yet it is of no use until it surfaces. Older people do seem to have that attitude when they reflect on their lives.
I know that, in hindsight, most of what I write now will make me wince in a year's time. My opinions, goals, emotions, priorities will change. Even so, I will know not to regret anything, for regret is a waste of time and energy.
Theodore Roosevelt said that we should do what we can, with what we have, where we are. That's an apt statement. Our past selves were doing precisely that. Lacking knowledge later acquired was not stupidity. Not having had out current experiences was not naivety. We did what we could, where we were, with what we had.
I can look back and think how stupid I was to expect university to go well. Except, I wasn't. At the time it seemed the only option. School, college, university, work. The standard path. Want to be a writer? Take an English degree. Simple. I could not have anticipated my inexplicable loathing of academia. I could not have known I would be stuck in a tiny, dark, overpriced dorm room with mould and rats, no options given. Not that the dorm room was the problem, but it hit home that university is another business. A degree is a product and my experience has taught me not to buy the stuff everyone expects you to.
Some people tell me I will regret my tattoos (I have 7.) I tell them that I will not because I do not have the option. Regret would serve no purpose. They are a part of my body until it rots away, and my thoughts cannot erase them. Plus, each has enormous, deep meaning for me. No matter how I feel about them later in life, I will never discard the emotions which drove me to get them.
After all, intelligence involves using all we know, stupidity involves neglecting to do that. Hence, I avoid learning small amounts about any topic I am not willing to fully immerse myself in. A little bit of knowledge when underutilised has equally little value. Instead, I aim to build a latticework of interlocked information. This is what I call 'functional knowledge.' My younger self was missing parts of my current latticework, as a result of lack of experience. I am not a Tralfaladorian who can see their entire life at once. I am trapped in the present, moving from moment to moment, hoping to impress my future self.
My older self will always be my harshest critic, so my younger self will always be my most enthusiastic cheerleader. I never expected to make it to adulthood. I very nearly didn't. No matter how hard I try to impress them both, it is only my current self who truly matters. Or rather, myself. What matters is that I avoid burying my past and do all I can to ensure there is a future.
As Thomas Nagel wrote, the present is merely one time among others. I cannot know how I will feel when I look back on now. All I can do is, like Scrooge, learn to see the three time zones and learn from them all as I go.
P.S. If you enjoyed this post, consider supporting this site via Patreon. For the cost of a cup of coffee each month, you can receive access to exclusive additional content and hundreds of pages of my private notebooks. Running this site takes hundreds of hours each month and your help in keeping it going without the need for adverts would be incredible.