People think that only the future can be changed, but in reality, the future constantly changes the past. The past can and does change. It is extremely sensitive and delicately balanced. ” -Keiichiro Hirano
When we think of time, we divide it into three dimensions: past, present, and future. We also tend to accept certain beliefs about each dimension without much questioning.
The present tense is “here and now”. That is what is happening now. The future, alternatively, is what happens. That’s what happens.
In both these dimensions, there are many possibilities. We can do all kinds of things now and we can make all kinds of choices in the future. (Ignore, at least for a moment, the debate about whether we really have free will.)
Unlike the present and the future, the past is locked away. Short of finding the elusive time machine, there’s not much we can do to change the past. We have to accept it and move on. Or do we?
The past lives in our memories and these memories are not reliable. We are the unreliable narrator of our own stories. We may exaggerate our successes or magnify our failures out of proportion. These trends are not mutually exclusive: we can do both at the same time! There are at least three ways in which the future can change the past. If not all three, I suspect you’ll join one of them.
The effect of new experiences
Think back to a time when you really wanted something and didn’t get it. You wanted to gain someone’s acceptance or approval. You needed a relationship to succeed. You wanted to be offered a job or admitted to an elite program. Whatever it was, you wanted it badly, even desperately and you just didn’t get it.
When you failed to achieve your goal, you had feelings of disappointment. It hurt to think about it after a while. You wondered if you should have worked harder or done something differently. (We’ve all been there!)
As painful as it may be, you’ve finally reached a milestone. Something else happened that wasn’t possible in the alternate universe you hoped for but, obviously, this new thing was better.
Looking back later, you see the original situation in a completely different light. Instead of that situation acting as a low point in your life, you now realize that something you always wished had happened differently took on a completely different role: the time you didn’t get what you wanted, thank God.
Think about it. What you wanted most was what you didn’t want.
This is not simply a matter of interpretation. In these situations, the past is literally changed by something that happened in the future.
Effect of new information
Now imagine that your family takes a DNA test and you discover that your father is not your biological father. This actually happened to a close friend of mine when she was in her thirties. Her entire family learned the results at the same time! She told me later that it felt like a bad soap opera plot, except it was taking place in her mother’s living room.
Will this new information change the past? Well, whether you think it should or shouldn’t, it does. In my friend’s case, the disclosure caused years of upheaval in her family. If they don’t come to the test, the family dynamic and sense of shared history (regardless of its accuracy) will remain.
You could argue that new information shouldn’t have that much power. My friend’s family was happy, or at least stable before they found out they had been holding a secret for over thirty years. “Something is different, but many things are still the same?” Why should not everyone accept?
As I said, whether they do or don’t is irrelevant. The status quo was an impossible outcome: the family could no longer see the past in the same way. Significant new information changes the past.
Weight of major events
Finally, imagine a major event in your life. It can be positive or negative, but let’s go with the positive: you win the lottery. It’s a really big lottery, one of those that make headlines and gives you dizzying amounts of money.
The week before you win the lottery, you miss a credit card payment. The missed payment lingers in your mind, and you feel anxious whenever it pops up.
Now, as a $100 million lottery winner, what do you think about that missed payment? Chances are, you don’t think about it at all! Whatever guilt you have about it will go away when you happily go to pay off the entire balance. Your internal narrative will change.
You can skip the analysis altogether, in which case the past is effectively erased. Many other things about your life will also change, and credit card bills will no longer be on your mind.
When a major event occurs, the shift in the past can be sudden and complete. Circumstances in your past that previously troubled you now seem far away. They are almost irrelevant to your life now.
Better than a time machine?
Think of time travel by altering the future as a tool you can use when dealing with time anxiety. It doesn’t always work Consider the classic quote “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” – but sometimes it’s a lifesaver.
Many of us want to go back and change things that happened a long time ago or something that happened yesterday. But how we remember the past greatly affects what we do in the future.
The next time someone says, “You can’t change the past,” you’ll know better. You change the past every day! The past also changes only through time and events outside of your control.
By taking control of your future and paying close attention you’ll see the past as fluid and subject to change.
You may not understand some information related to moods. But you can understand many things that you don’t have to try. If you write the future today inspired by the past, the past is related to it. But you also have the ability to take yourself to a different aspect so that the future is not connected to the past. Try to see yourself.
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