The Time Machine
The past few weeks have taught me a lot about grief, regret, and how to build a time machine.
My mother died in the early hours of September 19th. I’d been with her for much of the day before and into that night. But I wasn’t there at the end. Her hospital bed was by a window. The plants outside reminded me of my garden in Japan. I’d longed to share that garden with her. I like to think that in her final minutes there might’ve been birds chirping outside her window, just as they often did in the early hours outside her home. But I’ll never know.
Regret Is Like A Time Machine
Grief shakes us up in all sorts of ways. Often, it pushes us towards regret. It feels impossible to avoid looking back and wishing things had turned out differently.
On a recent episode of The Happiness Lab podcast, host Laurie Santos described regret as being like a time machine. Santos’s guest, Daniel Pink, suggested that when we get in the Time Machine, we engage in a kind of fabulism, imagining different possible futures as a result of past decisions. How our life could’ve been better – or why it’s worse.
The question isn’t so much whether to have regrets or not, or even whether to jump into the Time Machine. It’s what we do once we’re in the past, once we’re looking at our past selves, and once we’re evaluating the decisions we made.
Decisions Beg Questions
On 10 September, I was packed and ready to leave for the US early the next day. My brother called to say Mum was in hospital, and the prognosis was not good.
Cancelling my trip was easy. The decisions that flowed consequentially from that were harder but also navigable.
But over the following weeks I had occasion to revisit decisions I’d made over the years, from moving away and living so far from my parents, to how I’d comported myself on trips back “home”.
I’d made the decision, years ago, to maintain a kind of emotional hygiene around those family visits. To ask a lot of questions about the past, to hold space for the sharing of generational wisdom, to not leave anything unsaid, and to not leave with unresolved conflicts.
None of that made watching my mother die feel any less sad or painful. And it does nothing to assuage the tragedy of knowing I’ll experience many things in the future that I would’ve loved to share with her but won’t be able to.
But it did seem to mean that when grief threw me into the Time Machine, I was able to be a little kinder to my past self.
The Question Longevity Asks
My mother was 35 years older than me. Assuming I have the good fortune to live as long as she did, the question arises of what those years will look like. That’s a lot of life still left to live.
And before we get into the question of how longevity has changed, and whether, now we can expect to live longer as medical care improves, there’s another question: how have our ideas of what we can do at each stage of life evolved?
When my mother reached 60, she was still regularly going to the swimming pool and also doing aqua-aerobics. That was unusual for parents of my generation. But we’re now used to people that age and far older being fit and active.
Assuming you have 30 or 40 years of adulthood left, or maybe more, what will you do now to help make those years as healthy and fulfilling as possible? It’s a question I’ve been asking for a while now, and it suddenly feels so much more urgent.
Can You Live Without Regret?
It’s become popular to say you have no regrets or to aspire to a regret-free life. Sometimes that’s associated with not having to explain yourself or not feeling guilty about your choices. But can we really live with no regrets? Should that even be a goal?
For one thing, as you get older, it’s statistically harder to have no regrets because you simply make so many choices, mistakes, and failures over the course of a lifetime.
Perhaps the important question isn’t whether you have regrets, but what you do with them.
Or to put it another way: When you get in the Time Machine, what are you hoping to achieve?
Too often we use regret to justify a kind of indulgent magical thinking. The best case scenario seldom happens in real life, so why do allow ourselves to imagine it might’ve been possible in situations we regret?
Or we get into the Time Machine to punish ourselves. To confirm some negative story we have about our own lives.
But if we can’t avoid the Time Machine, then maybe we can get into it with a different motivation. Maybe we travel to learn? To understand ourselves better? To ask what we can do better next time?
Make More Time Machines
Primer is my favourite time travel movie. It’s odd. It doesn’t really make sense. But that’s part of its appeal because the whole idea of time travel is so weird and gets weirder the more you think about it.
In one moment of the film, you see one of the characters dragging the parts needed to make a time machine into a time machine. Why is he doing that? What will it achieve? That never really gets explained.
But could we use the reality-altering power of grief and regret to build our own time machines?
On my final day in Adelaide, I spread my mother’s ashes off the coast near one of her favourite coastal spots. It’s a place she loved to walk and also somewhere I’ve often gone to take photos on my many trips to Adelaide over the years.
At some point I’ll set up a tripod and point my camera at the horizon over the waters that became my mother’s final resting place. The photos I take then will sit as part of a larger body of images made in that location. And they’ll connect the experiences we shared together, but also the experiences we had in that same location at separate times.
They will be a Time Machine.