Near the end of her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, psychology professor Kristin Neff2 asks if you could go back in time and change something, would you do it even if it meant you would no longer be you? For a lot of years, perhaps decades even, my answer would have been an emphatic "yes!" But recently, a series of experiences and decisions conspired to bring me to this moment, this precise iteration of who I could have become, and today I can definitively declare – despite all the mistakes and pain and missed opportunities – no, I wouldn’t. This is who I want to be, and this is what I want to be doing.
If I hadn’t co-organized a costume party in October 2001 and invited my new classmate Jonathan and his then girlfriend, Alma, I wouldn’t have started spending time with them every week. If I hadn’t liked the vibe of the Indiana University campus when I toured it (I think it was all the trees), I wouldn’t have decided to go to grad school there, so I would never have met Jon. If I hadn’t let my mom and my undergrad professors convince me that I didn’t really want to be a high school teacher, I would never have applied to the PhD program in Germanic Studies at IU, so I wouldn’t have traveled to Bloomington to visit the campus. If I had chosen to start learning Spanish or French or Russian or Japanese in high school instead of German, I wouldn’t have majored in German in college and subsequently been faced with the decision about what to do with it after graduation. If I hadn’t learned how to knit when I was 8 and stuck with it all those years, I wouldn’t have started talking to Alma at the costume party about a shared hobby, which led to a weekly tradition of eating dinner at their apartment and watching WB shows together while knitting. If, if, if...you get the idea. Both my friendship with Jon and the book project that quickly grew out of that Tuesday evening ritual have had such a meaningful impact on shaping my life, I wouldn’t want to go back in time and risk making a small change, almost certainly causing me to lose them.
While following some leads from Jon today, researching sources for our chapter on time travel, I stumbled upon the short documentary film, The Butterfly Effect (2016). (Good thing I never got around to getting rid of the STARZ channel like I planned!) The creator of the video, Top5s, extrapolates from the titular theory originally developed by meteorologist Edward Lorenz in the 1960s, to make the bold claim: "This video will have an effect on your life in ways you probably never thought." At first, I rejected the arrogant sounding notion, but by the time I finished the 8-minute film, I had changed my mind. The documentary outlines some of the small incidents and spur-of-the-moment decisions that led to major world-changing ramifications such as the world wars, the JFK assassination, and the NASA space shuttle design as well as giving personal examples from the director’s own life. Watching it gave me that spine-chilling awareness of my own insignificance we humans tend to hate, as I pondered how improbable it is that I exist at all. At the same time, however, it gave me a terrifyingly out-sized perception of the consequences of my every action. Top5s could have used this compelling line of thought to drive home a variety of possible morals, some of them potentially detrimental, if nothing else, then to my motivation level at least. To my surprise, though, he chose to make the case for how much each individual life matters.3
Standing at the fork in the road of how to interpret this accidental influence and apply it to my life, I realize I have two main options. I can freeze in fear and indecisiveness before each minuscule choice as I am wont to do (think Chidi in The Good Place), OR I can start a blog and finish this book Jon and I have been dreaming about for the past 19 years. As James Clear writes in his excellent book, Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, every action you take is a vote cast for the kind of life you wish to lead.4 I wish to lead the life of a writer.
1The idea for the title comes from Benjamin Percy’s article on writing: “Feckless Pondering: Emotional Beats and the Art of Repose” (The Literary Life, January/February 2015)
2For helpful resources on self-compassion, see Dr. Neff’s website: https://self-compassion.org/
3"The decisions you make today matter. Every decision points your life in the direction you are about to travel. No decision is an isolated choice. It’s a chain of events."
4For more useful strategies for habit formation, visit Mr. Clear’s website: https://jamesclear.com/habits