If you could go back, would you? Or better yet- what would it mean to you to have a second chance at something?
There’s something so compelling and enduring about these questions, and yet they’re purely imaginative exercises. The moment you answer, you realize with a bitter sigh that you’ll never actually get the chance to return to a given point in your past to try and force a different outcome to the one you got. As the Three-Eyed Raven put it: the ink is dry. And yet we can’t help but imagine how things would have turned out if past events happened differently. Wouldn’t it be more productive (and healthy) to imagine a better future than a better past? What’s really going on here, when we know that time travel isn’t possible and probably never will be?
I’ve been thinking about this recently, because I just finished reading Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi. It’s a quirky little novel that’s themed around many of these questions. And given that the novel is a bestseller in Japan, it’s obvious that people have an appetite for them. In short, it’s about a mysterious café in the backstreets of Tokyo that’s rumored to be able to transport its patrons back in time.
After finishing the book, I asked my parents if there was a particular moment in their respective lives that they wished they could go back and do differently. At first, they were a little flummoxed. They asked what “going back” in this scenario entailed. That’s the biggest problem with these time travel questions- you end up having to come up with rules for something that doesn’t exist. It reminds me of an episode of The Ricky Gervais Show where Ricky and Steve ask Karl to pick a moment from his past he’d like to go back to. Karl can’t seem to get his head around the concept, and they spend five (hilarious) minutes just trying to clarify the nature of time travel process. Does going back mean returning to exactly who you were, as you were, at that moment? Or does it mean going back in time with the mind you have now, and your knowledge and memories of the original timeline? Does it mean returning as an observer, Ebenezer Scrooge style, an invisible fly-on-the-wall? If you do go back, are you stuck in that new timeline or do you have an assurance of returning to the present? If the latter, then how does…