Time Only Flows One Way
This is not a commentary on American politics. It is a story about time. A series of realizations that occurred to me in the earliest hours of November 9, 2016. Taken in total, this year has been unlike any other I've lived before. Not just because of the political battle that unfolded in the United States, but for a number of other seemingly chaotic yet interrelated personal and global experiences that made up the chapter I'll call my thirty seventh year. In March, there were terror attacks in Brussels. In June, there was a mass shooting at a nightclub in Florida. In September, we reflected on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. And throughout it all, there was a simmering kettle of fear, anger, and mistrust practically boiling over in the United States political system as we drove headfirst into November's election day. When I went to bed on the eve of the election, the race was too close to call. Every poll had put one candidate ahead of the other, so I felt that by retiring early, I wouldn't wake up to any surprises. Besides, I had been away on business travel, so a little extra sleep was something I didn't want to pass up. For some reason, however, I awoke with a start just before 3:00am. I tossed and turned for a while, then finally gave in to my insomnia and got out of bed. I turned on the television and couldn't believe what I was seeing. I never went back to bed.
Away from home and away from my family, I sat by myself in a dimly-lit hotel room long before the sun came up and watched the scene unfold. It wasn't so much who was elected, it was the recognition of just how clearly divided the United States had truly become, and how fear and shock seemed to be the predominate feelings across the country. Polls didn't predict it; sentiment didn't reflect it. I watched in disbelief, thinking it could only be compared to how some felt on the morning of Brexit earlier this year. Something akin to a hangover. And then it dawned on me - the underlying moral of this life- nothing is predicable. Not only that, but time itself is uncontrollable. Perhaps in a way I've never been able to appreciate more, I recognized the most important and binding constraint of them all: time only flows one way. We talk about history as a record of things that have occurred in the past, but we seldom reflect on the linearity of time itself. How decisions and pathways and pivots can never be undone. We can only go from Point A to Point B on a time line. A one way transaction. Things happen: wars, natural disasters, financial crashes - and they cannot be reversed. The damage cannot be retroactively prevented. We can be smarter, for next time... maybe. But we can't undo things. We can choose leaders and elect presidents; we can choose to break apart, but we cannot go back, after we realize a better choice may have existed, and do it over. I can't think of another scenario in life that is so rigidly linear, except life itself.
Just as we cannot go back, we must acknowledge we can only move forward. What happened yesterday is no more unchangeable than what happened a thousand years ago. And so now we stand, as a group of divided Americans in a strangely turbulent world right now, accepting the decisions that have been made and trying to cope with outcomes that didn't match our expectations. I remind myself that had the election turned out differently, an almost equal number of people in this country (in this world?) would have likely felt the same as I do today. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared of what lay ahead.
In my hotel room, I reached into my bag and took out the little travel camera I always keep with me to snap this picture. I wanted to remember the exact moment for a very long time. I'll use the picture to someday explain to my children this very complex time we're living in. Hopefully, by then, the reality of our day today will be one in which they cannot relate to or even imagine. They, too, will be bound to the present and future as we are today, with no opportunity to go back in time; to undo, to restructure, or to repair the things they could have done better. We, of course, can only try our best to fix it for them from now.
As I put my camera away, moments after taking this picture, I switched the television channel to see Stephen Colbert hosting a special Election Night Show on one of the cable channels. I guess he had been staying up all night and hosting a number of guests as the election results unfolded in real-time. He, too, seemed like a combination of shocked and angry. Like he hadn't mentally prepared the least bit for this outcome. When I tuned in, the always funny Jeff Goldblum had strolled onto the set. I always liked him as an actor, from his early work in Cronenberg's remake of The Fly to his hilarious portrayal of Ian Malcom in Crichton's Jurassic Park. He's normally a jittery kind of guy - it's his signature - but he, like me in my hotel room and Colbert on his stage, seemed agitated with the turn of events with the election. Detecting their subtle unease made me all the more uncomfortable. But there, on live broadcast, I watched Mr. Goldblum turn things around and frame the frighteningly surreal situation in a fresh and positive light. Gradually, his frenetic speak turned into an eloquent string of words, reminding us all that life is a journey and that the manner in which we work together, the ways in which we collaborate with one another in this journey, is what counts. And then, in a style and in a way only he could, Mr. Goldblum started into song, singing without a hint of self-consciousnesses, a portion of the song It Goes Like It Goes, from the film Norma Rae:
That is the memory I'll keep of this shocking election. Jeff Goldblum singing It Goes Like It Goes. Reminding me, by myself by the light of one lamp, in another generic hotel room during another inconsequential business trip, that things are going to turn out alright.
Afterwards, I clicked off the television and thought, once again, that time only flows one way. It's a river, and there's not chance of swimming upstream. Life is full of surprises and we have to adapt. We can't wish for things to have gone a different way because there's no way to change any of it. We can only move forward. Always. Together.