I was talking about the movie Back to the Future III the other night; and since then I have been thinking about one of the major plot devices of the franchise, the notion that a small change in the past can have a large impact on the future. The movies are built around the idea that the main character Marty is consistently warned not to mess with the past because it could have tremendous implications for the future. Marty’s adventures lead him to change the past altering the “present” he knows (he always seems to ultimately improve his socioeconomic situation). Though some sci-fi shows, like Dr Who, use different concepts of time, the majority of Americans seem to believe in the butterfly effect depicted in Back to the Future. My favorite example a show using the past to change the future is Quantum Leap where Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) is thrown through time “putting right what once went wrong”. Sam is thrown through the events of history inhabiting the bodies of others (it was always funny when he took on a female character) and with the help of his friend Al he lives the lives of others and corrects their mistakes. Sam and Al are never sure what makes him leap and even speculate that it is God (there is an episode explores this). Why is Sam bouncing from one time to another, and why specifically does he leave just at the moment he has helped make someone’s future better, is God directing him through the past to make the world’s future better?
If only God would send someone back in time to correct the past and improve the future. I remember one poignant episode of Quantum Leap (well really two) where Sam “leaps” in and out of Lee Harvey Oswald in an attempt to prevent JFK’s assignation. Ultimately Sam “leaps” into a secret service officer just as Oswald fires the fatal shot and Sam fails to protect the president. Grieving Sam is unloading on Al about his failure and Al looks back at him and says, “Your Swiss cheese mind probably doesn’t remember but the first time Oswald kills Jackie too.“, what we discover is that Sam was able to slow Oswald down just enough to not fire at Jackie. The episode is striking because it is real history fictionalized (and done well); but it also leaves us with a thought, if only that were possible, if only we could change history to make things better. I think this premise of time travel taps into an inner longing for many people, the desire to fix past mistakes. Within each of us there lies some decision we wish to change, and the thought that if I could simply change this one thing my life would vastly improve.
It is not as easy to manipulate the future as shown on TV. The college student invited to the party does not know if going will result in meeting a lifelong friend or spouse, or if bit studying that night will have a devastating effect on passing a class and ultimately a career. However, we should remember that we daily make decisions which impact our future selves and if we pay attention to our decisions and consider how they will impact our lives then we are in fact doing something similar to Sam Beckett and Marty McFly. We do not have to know the specifics of the future to impact its outcome, we simply need an ideal from which to begin to work.
I was recently talking with someone who recalled widespread bullying in high school. This individual was recounting how much the experience toughened the kids at that school, my thought listening to the story was how blessed I am that the administration of my children’s school district seeks to eliminate bullying before it begins. Marty McFly taught his dad how to stand up to a bully when everyone else is unconcerned and that changed his family’s future; the administration of my children’s school foresee a future without bullying and are trying to make it happen. I hope you can see the point, these teachers understand they are not going to eliminate all bullying and they going to have times where kids will be hardened by their experiences, but the school system is seeking to make little changes daily to create the kind of future they want. The schools are accepting the fact they are going to be someone’s past and hopefully they will help shape a better future.
The trouble is we often walk through life blind to the fact we are shaping the future, our decisions impact who we are as individuals and what our community looks like. We tend to make split-second decisions with little concern for how those decisions will invest in our future. Think about the future you want to inhabit and the self you want to become, now what are small steps you can take to help make this a reality. Ask yourself at the end of the day if you accomplished anything that would make your future better. Such steps will help produce a long continuous line of growth and make your ideal future more likely to become reality.