No Regrets for Time Travelers

By | January 1, 2008

One of the themes of the Speculist that I have neglected over the past couple of years is the idea of Practical Time Travel — the notion that we are moving through time not in the reversed or accelerated way described in science fiction stories, but rather forward one day at a time through myriad possibilities to a future that is, to the extent that we can make it so, one of our own design.

Some balk at the idea of describing this as “time travel” at all, but that is exactly what it is. I would make an analogy to space travel. In one sense, we are all space travelers, completing a trip around the sun each year. And that’s just the beginning: the sun doesn’t stand still, and the galaxy itself is hurtling through deep space away from all the other galaxies. We are all astronauts — moving through local, interstellar, and even intergalactic space.

Still, it doesn’t seem remarkable, or even particularly interesting, to move through space this way, seeing as we all do it…all the time. And yet, when someone moves a much smaller distance through space — say into earth orbit or to the moon — that is remarkable. Why?

Well, it’s remarkable because the astronaut broke out of the normal pattern of space travel that we’re all engaged in (and don’t think about) and chose his or her own destination. Time travel works the same way. When we stop plodding along helplessly towards “the future” (as relentless as, and in fact parallel with, our annual journey through space around the sun) and start working on arriving at a future of our own choosing, then we become time travelers. A year from now, it will be 2009 for everybody, but the question is which 2009 you will be living in? The one that just shows up? Or the one that you chose as your own destination?

Via InstaPundit, Gil at Virtual Memories writes a very moving coming-of-age/beginning-of-the-year piece in which he quotes the philosopher Hegel:

A will which resolves on nothing is not an actual will; the characterless man can never resolve on anything. The reason for such indecision may also lie in an over-refined sensibility which knows that, in determining something, it enters the realm of finitude, imposing a limit on itself and relinquishing infinity; yet it does not wish to renounce the totality to which it intends. Such a disposition is dead, even if its aspiration is to be beautiful. “Whoever aspires to great things,” says Goethe, “must be able to limit himself.” Only by making resolutions can the human being enter actuality, however painful the process may be; for inertia would rather not emerge from that inward brooding in which it reserves a universal possibility for itself. But possibility is not yet actuality. The will which is sure of itself does not therefore lose itself in what it determines.

In choosing a destination, we also choose the destinations that we won’t be arriving at. When I decided to write this blog post, I chose not to write any of the other thousands of posts I could have been working on right now. Our task, this year and every year, is to choose a few good outcomes that we want to work towards — or rather one good destination at which we would like to arrive — and start working towards it.

Glenn also linked an interesting NY Times piece with some ponderings on the subject of regret as it relates to these kinds of choices. The following passage in particular caught my attention:

Over the past decade and a half, psychologists have studied how regrets — large and small, recent and distant — affect people’s mental well-being. They have shown, convincingly though not surprisingly, that ruminating on paths not taken is an emotionally corrosive exercise. The common wisdom about regret — that what hurts the most is not what you did but what you didn’t do — also appears to be true, at least in the long run.

So if you want to avoid regret, don’t worry about everything you missed out on. Be a time traveler. Choose a destination for yourself and start towards it. It seems that what people regret is knowing that there was a future out there they could have worked towards, but didn’t. Kind of like an astronaut who thought maybe he could have made it to the moon, but never gave it a shot.

But even worse than that would be an astronaut who could never decide if he wanted to go the moon, to Mars, or to Venus…and so never went anywhere.

Pack your bags, time travelers. All your yesterdays are behind you. All your tomorrows lie ahead. Choose a good one, and don’t stop until you get there.

  • Tony

    That’s a very good way of looking at things – thanks for that!

    Oh, BTW – Phil, could you *please* do something about the embedded MP3s for that auto-start on page load? It’s very distracting and will be eating up your bandwidth. Cheers.

  • Phil Bowermaster

    Tony –

    Thanks for your kind words. I’m passing your technical request over to Stephen, who is in charge of our MP3 department. :-)

    Personally, I didn’t realize that they were still auto-playing. Thought we had changed that.

  • Tony

    Seems to be working – thanks Stephen! ;)

  • MDarling


    We are time travellers- in that we exist in and through time. At least for awhile.

    If we didn’t/ weren’t – then we’d be instantaneous.

    Oddly- Tesla apparently discussed this with his friend Mark Twain and they both were of a mind that the appearance of our (human) temporal limitations are less restrictive and constrictive than it would appear. (So you agree with me- Tesla was/is a time traveller!)