I lived in residence when I attended the University of Ottawa during my first year. The school is bilingual, French and English, and it is located in the down town of Canada’s capital city. As such, it offers a unique opportunity that no other school in the country can – proximity to the political establishment and to the government industrial complex. This means access to most aspect of the government along with exposure to a wide selection of people (diplomats and embassy workers) from many other countries. It would be a common occurrence to ride the bus during the evening rush hour and be surrounded by people who do not look or speak the same way I do. As a consequence of this high level of diversity, a lot of international students would attend the University.
This aspect of the city was great, particularly for anyone living in residence, because first year international students were offered a room on campus. I got to meet and spend time with people from places that I had never thought about before. This type of exposure, particularly during this phase of my life had a profound impact on my concept of what a person was or could be. I was just one of billions of people and while we all kind of looked and behaved in the same sort of way, it was clear that the thoughts that people have are wide and varied. There were patterns though, which is a powerful piece of information to have access to as one transitions from high school teenager to university adult.
We were all there to figure things out and most of the people on our floor spent a lot of time talking, particularly later in the evening when our critical faculties were drained from a long day of consuming lectures and text book material. The most fruitful conversations tended to unfold on Sunday, Tuesday or Wednesday evenings because these were the days when we were operationally the furthest away from the weekend and the negative effects that alcohol has on the quality of discourse. Our heads were clear, people listened and heard, and the only thing we really needed to do was study, so everyone seemed to put in the extra effort to keep the conversations flowing in order to reassign the work to tomorrow. The entire thing was a formula for insight – time, bright clear minds, and an incentive to continue probing; so we could avoid doing any direct work.
During one of these late night chats, I said something that was accidentally wise. But because it was an accident, I did not have the presence of mind to deliberately have a good conscious think about it every day. It remained in my brain doing stuff, but I didn’t pay attention to it enough to maximize the impact it would have and to allow it to fully shape the direction of my thinking. This is the nature accidental wisdom, without the hard work to reflect on and create an impression of value, we do not treat it as well as we should and after not too long, it more or less leaves us.
The concept I brought up was “personal relativity” and it was in response to the topic of regret. We had been talking about grad weekend, and one of the girls mentioned that she didn’t talk to her date any more. He had wanted to move their relationship to the next level while she was fine with taking things slow and pacing the upward trajectory so as to leave some things undone for a later time. His desire was to have sex after the formal at the hotel room they had rented, while she wanted something much less intimate. They didn’t have sex and their relationship did not make it through the summer. This had left her a little heart broken and wondering if her decision to wait had been worth it or if it had been the wrong thing to do.
She was a second year student, so she was about 18 months past the grad weekend and around 16 months post break-up. The time had given her plenty of opportunity to reframe things in a way that made them easier to deal with, and the fact that he no longer spoke to her served to validate her decision as the right one. As she was unpacking the situation and kind of outlined how things had evolved, I felt the need to tell her that no matter what she had done, there would always be a time when it was viewed as the right thing to have had happen and a time when it would be viewed as having been the wrong thing. The reality didn’t actually matter because there was not a right or wrong thing in it given the shift in her thinking about it. All we have is one opportunity to do what we think is best, and that is based on what we know at the moment in time when we have to make that decision.
Sure, they could have slept together and stayed together forever. Maybe the only reason the relationship ended was because she were not ready and he was; although that doesn’t really make a lot of sense because a life long partnership will not end simply because one partner wants to have sex and the other partner does not. But this doesn’t actually matter given the amount of time between prom night, the eventual break-up, and the evening when we are having the conversation.
Sure, they could have slept together and still broken-up towards the end of the summer, on the same day that they broke-up in reality. While it feels like this version of reality would validate the correctness of her decision to wait, it doesn’t matter in exactly the same way and amount as the “do it and live happily ever after” scenario.
The truth is, and it is always true, that life runs in one direction and there are no chance to redo any of it. Even if we get to repeat an experience, it isn’t the same experience no matter how close to the same it might appear. Materially, the world chances from instant to instant, so the notion that a mulligan is a redo is inherently flawed. What seems like a second chance at something is actually the first chance at something else, something that is very similar to the thing that was done before.
There was a moment when everyone was considering what I had said and it was clear that something was happening inside their heads. It wasn’t so much that a light was going on or that they suddenly had access to an insight that they had been struggling to surface, it was more like they had realized something very sad yet promising about their existential experience of life. The decisions we make are, so long as we take proper care to consider the known and the possible unknown information, always going to be correct. Any post hoc evaluation that considers information that we did not have access to at the time, and could not have reasonably imagined, is an evaluation about a future present (relative to when the decision was made) or a past present (relative to when the evaluation is being made) and does NOTHING to alter quality of the decision that was actually made. Even if future present or past present seem kind of confusing, the fact that there are two or three unique moments in time being combined in order for an evaluation to occur is a nonstarter. Relative to the moment in time when you chose, your decision was logical, sound, and valid. Relative to any time in the future, your decision cannot be viewed through the same lens and any value judgments about it are meaningless and inherently flawed.
This is sad because it sets up a situation in which every decision we can make will be viewed as wrong. It is promising because it gives us permission to leave the past behind and learn from the outcome of the choices we make. It is this promising aspect of it that I wish I had been able to constantly keep in mind. The knowledge that a mistake was made should cause a little pain, but only enough to serve as an incentive to learn from and a disincentive to repeat the mistake. It should never turn into regret or manifest as a generalization about ones tendency to make mistakes. And under no circumstance should it ever be internalized as an identity statement.
The world is very complicated and there is too much to know for any one person to know everything. We are going to be mostly clueless about most things and possible know a lot about one or two subjects. So long as there are at least a few people to know each thing who are capable of sharing or teaching it to others, the massive blind spots each one of us have are not necessarily going to cause much of an issue. Problems arise when we don’t seek out, listen to and hear, or adjust our course based on the things that those who know tell us. Knowing that you do not know is critical, knowing that there are things that you do not know that you do not know about is critical, and taking it easy on yourself is critical when, in the future, you learn one of these things and you realize that you have made a mistake.
Personal relativity is not a way to banish negative emotions from your life, nor is it an easy justification for being careless. It is simply a way to highlight the complexities of being alive, of managing your way through life knowing that you exist in an information void, and of giving yourself permission to be more charitable when your fallible nature contributes to a stumble. The concept of time is hard enough to wrap your head around, so it makes no sense to assume that your understanding of its experience is accurate.
Regret is built on the belief that you should have done differently, while assuming that you could have done differently. Personal relativity is built on the fact that you did what was correct at a very specific moment in time with all of the information you had access to. Just because the future present reveals something that would have altered your decision does not change anything about the past.
Each one of us has a perspective that is unique – we are the centre of ALL of our experiences and are therefore the centre of the universe. But so is everyone else. Personal relativity captures this aspect of experience while also including time as another dimension. So just as you will never know the experience of being someone else, you will never know the experience of simultaneously being yourself at two different moments in time.
Be mindful of what is going on, of what you know that is relevant, of what might possibly be known by others that is relevant, of what is not yet known by anyone that might be relevant, and of what is possible but has not yet happened that might be relevant. Once you have primed your brain with as much of this information as you can, trust it to make a logical and rational decision knowing full well that something may pop-up one day that seems to reframe your action as a mistake.