The idea of setting back time is appealing. This summer when my lap top got fried by lightening I spoke to Hewlett Packard technicians in India who guided me through various unsuccessful attempts to save my hard drive. One involved setting the computer clock back to the day before the lightening to see if the computer could restore itself to its previous state.
“Wow,” I said to the technician. Could we set it to before George Bush became president?”
“No,” said the technician dryly. “You purchased your computer since then.”
After an awkward pause I explained that I was joking.
“I know,” he answered in an unwavering technician tone. (I’m going to guess that Hewlett Packard doesn’t encourage transcontinental political discussions).
Unsuccessful jokes aside, it is tempting to image rewriting history. The Philadelphia Inquirer tried it a few weeks ago with a series of articles called “What if we had not invaded Iraq?” I was tempted to write my own piece called “What if we had not invaded Iraq the first time?” since the first Gulf War was the event that ignited al-Qaeda’s campaign against the United States. Arguably if we had addressed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait diplomatically instead of putting 500 US troops in Saudi Arabia, September 11 and its aftermath would never have happened. It could have been a good article, but with two kids, a sick mother, and a job, speculating on diplomatic roads not taken didn’t seem to be the best use of my time.
It’s also not that helpful to imagine the roads not taken in my own life, though I have been doing some of that lately. This semester I’m teaching a course on South African history, which I studied in graduate school sixteen years ago. Remembering facts I had forgotten, finding old papers I wrote back when I thought I might want to be a professional historian, hearing a few days ago that an old friend from the Peace Corps happened to meet an old friend from graduate school on a plane to Johannesburg have all led me back to the crossroad where I turned away from South Africa and academia. I don’t regret for a minute the life I chose, but I can’t help being curious: What would my life have been like if I had been in South Africa, rather than Maryland, when Mandela was released? Would I still have become a Quaker? Would I have ever found Tom or had Megan and Luke? You could make yourself crazy with such questions.
On the car ride home from school yesterday, Megan said out of the blue, “Thinking about what you’re going to be when you grow up is a total waste of time because it’s so far from now, you can’t really know.” Boy, I wish I had realized that when I was eight. I’ve wasted way too many hours imagining the future or reliving the past. As Luke observed, we can change the clocks, but we can’t really change the time. We’re always living in the present, so we might as well accept it.