I have two things to write about and I’ll try to make the case that they’re related.
The first comes from Conan O’Brien. He was on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast and they were talking about everything that happened with The Tonight Show. Conan said that he has tried not to settle for the simple story. In the simple story, it usually happens that you were right and the other person was wrong. The way things happened was inevitable and you saw it coming.
Of course you want to accept the simple story, because then the past is settled and you can move on. I mean, if you were right and there was nothing more you could have done, because the future as it happened was inevitable, then you can wipe your hands clean of the matter and skip on your way.
But the reality is that nothing is inevitable and you were as much a participant in that past as the other person, who may still have been wrong, but is probably not an evil genius.1 As Conan said, if the story is too clean, then you know it’s false.
I find it pretty easy not to accept the simple story, which if I can be honest, is sometimes maddening.2 My interpretation of that thing that happened hours/weeks/months/years ago changes all the time. When your perspective is limited and your memory biased, there is no objective take. You have to accept that things will remain unsettled.3
This brings me to the second thing. A quote I came across on tumblr (via robot-heart):
“Even God cannot change the past.” –Agathon
Ah, a chance to talk about theology. The thing about that quote is that I disagree. God cannot change what has happened, but while what happened matters,4 what matters a lot more is what we think of what happened. In the specific kind of theology I study, God is not omnipotent, but God is persuasive and through persuasion, God can transform the world and even the past.5
It doesn’t have to be a tragedy, but maybe that’s the easiest example. Something truly awful happens to you. There is no denying the suffering. You can even call it evil. But, over time the way you think about that thing is transformed. Maybe good things come out of the bad. Maybe you are able to forgive the person who wronged you. Maybe the experience makes you stronger. These things don’t make up for the tragedy, but they transform the tragedy so that its meaning becomes something more complex than simply evil and suffering.
The past is not settled. Meaning changes. To accept the simple story is to deny reality and limit the meaning that the past might have for your life.
- What’s simpler than an evil genius?! [↩]
- I am more often guilty of the second part of that. The creeping determinism that make you think you knew what was going to happen. But I believe we are free, so I don’t think things will inevitably happen a certain way. What a boring life that would be; not really living at all. [↩]
- It’s more likely that you will stop caring than that things will become settled. Ahem, personal experience tells me. [↩]
- I’m not arguing that either reality or meaning are strictly relative. [↩]
- This kind of transformation does not require God, but if you are a theist, this is a way you might see God working in the world. [↩]