Updated: Oct 14, 2020
What if I were to tell you that time travel is possible?
No, I don’t have a DeLorean (or any other novelty 80s sports car) with a flux capacitor, nor have I befriended a mysterious doctor with a police telephone box. Even without these powerful tools and friends, all of us have some power over the big ball of wibbly wobbly timey-wimey stuff, and we can use that power to travel in time—albeit rather slowly.
Here’s how you can practice slow motion time travel—no special gadgets required:
Protect the Future
In every time travel story ever told, there comes a moment wherein an overwrought character stuck in the past must take an action to prevent a future catastrophe or ensure the future they already know.
It’s Marty McFly playing guitar for the Enchantment Under the Sea dance so his parents fall in love and he gets to exist (and “invent” Rock’n’Roll for Chuck Berry).
It’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt turning the gun on his current self to stop the older version of himself (who looks suspiciously like Bruce Willis) from killing a mother protecting her child.
It’s Arnold trying to destroy Sarah Connor before she can become John Connor’s mother.
This staple of time travel stories is predicated on the idea that we know what will happen if the character doesn’t take decisive action in the past: the future they want will be lost. Marty will cease to exist, the kid will grow up to become a hardened and unstoppable maniac known as the Rainmaker, and John Connor will defeat Skynet. (These are either good or bad things, depending on which side is doing the decisive action in the past.)
Your Future Is In Your Hands
What’s interesting about the time travel trope of protecting the future is that it’s available to all of us without requiring a journey back in time. On the small scale, I can clean up the dishes tonight to make my tomorrow morning less rushed and frustrating, or I can floss my teeth regularly to protect my future oral health. On the larger scale, I can put money in my 401(k) today to protect my future retirement.
While we can’t specifically know how today’s actions will play out tomorrow—after all, having no dishes in the sink tomorrow might mean I’m leaving the house 3 minutes early, which puts me in the path of a runaway semi—we can generalize how our current actions will affect our future selves. It’s generally a good idea to clean up now to give your future self a break. It’s generally a good idea to take care of your body today so it’s in good shape for tomorrow. It’s generally a good idea to put money aside now so it can grow for your future needs.
It’s just not nearly as fun to do the dishes, floss, and invest for the future as it is to manipulate your parents as teenagers, get into a shoot-out with your future self, or show up naked and wreak general havoc in 1980s era Los Angeles and specific mayhem toward women named Sarah.
Traveling back in time is exciting. Chores? Not so much.
Here’s the thing, though: the result feels the same to your future self whether your protection of the future comes in an exciting hail of bullets or with an automatic transfer to your retirement account. You’ll be glad for your past self’s actions either way. Considering the fact that we’re still several years off from applicable time travel technology for the general consumer, committing to little actions that protect the future is the best possible way to travel in time.
Your future self will be just as grateful for your small, daily, slow-motion time travel as they would be for a big climactic jump to fix the problem all at once.
Use Future Wisdom Today
Stories in the time travel genre spend a little less time jumping forward than they do going back, but it’s worth thinking through the importance of traveling forward in time, as well. After all, Bill and Ted’s brief visit with the future council before giving their history report helped them understand the importance of what they were about to do, and of being excellent to each other.
While it’s unlikely that George Carlin will show up in a magic phone booth to help you travel forward in time, there are some slow motion methods for visiting with your future self when you’re in need of some of that sweet future wisdom.
For instance, it’s very easy to fall victim to the forever changeless logical fallacy anytime we’re in the midst of an unhappy period in our lives. When my eldest did not sleep for the first 18 months of his life, I was convinced that I would be a sleep-deprived zombie forever. Even though I rationally understood that the child would eventually learn to sleep and I would someday feel well-rested again, I was emotionally convinced that the overwhelming exhaustion I felt at that moment was my forever reality.
When we’re the midst of such a forever changeless logic trap, it’s easy to mistakenly look for permanent solutions to temporary problems. A parent who is chronically overtired might consider quitting their beloved job to become a stay-at-home caregiver because they are afraid of a lifetime of sleeplessness, even though their current problem is temporary.
Visit with Your Future Self
Consulting your future self can help you to avoid making decisions in the midst of the forever changeless mindset that you’ll come to regret. An overwhelmed parent of a newborn can think ahead to their future self as a parent of a pre-schooler, elementary kid, middle schooler, high-schooler, and college student, and ask those future selves if the proposed decision is a good one. Will the parent of the college student be glad you made the decision? Will the parent of the high-schooler? If the answer is no, then you’re making a permanent decision for a problem that will be solved with time. And your future self can advise you on this.
Similarly, you can ask your future self to help you gain perspective on a current situation that you do not enjoy. Whatever you are currently stuck in has things that you will miss, even though it may not feel like that. So ask your future self to help you rustle up some pre-emptive nostalgia about your current situation. What will you miss when you become the future self who is removed from your baby’s current sleeplessness or the unpleasant job you are now stuck in? Thinking about how much you will miss tiny baby snuggles or a co-worker’s jokes can help you contextualize the current moment and get to the future wisdom of recognizing what’s good about the now.
Take Care of Your Past Self
While most time travel stories are about making the future better than it might otherwise be, it’s important to remember that many a time traveler gets into the game because they feel anguish about a past they cannot change. For instance, Guy Pearce builds his titular machine in 2002’s The Time Machine because his fiancée was murdered, and he wants to go back in time to prevent her death. His overwhelming grief in the past leads to scientific advancement, which is only true in about 68.7% of all scientific breakthroughs. (30% of scientific breakthroughs are due to spite, while the remaining 1.3% occur through unrelated practical jokes.)
Sadly for Guy, he is unable to save his beloved—because without his grief, he would never have created a time machine. So the poor woman will die in new and varied ways no matter how many times he goes back in time. Though he tries to take care of the past with time travel, he’s unable to change what has already happened.
While we slow motion time travelers face the exact same problem when it comes to changing the past, we do have more power than Guy did in helping to take care of our past selves, simply because we are able to change our view of the past.
For instance, let’s say you regret the amount of student debt you took on for college. Maybe you kick yourself with every payment, thinking how much better off you’d be if you had chosen a different college, degree, or lender. You might wish you could go back in time to tell your 18 year old self to make different choices so things would be better for you now.
The slow motion time machine can’t take you back to the spring of 1997—but it does allow you to acknowledge everything you had access to in college because of the money you borrowed. You not only received an education, but you also made friends and connections at college, had new experiences, gained insights about yourself, fell in love with your field of study, and enjoyed the freedom to focus on your studies rather than on tuition bills.
Your bills today are a gift to your younger self. Paying them now means you had a freeing and exciting start to adulthood—an early adulthood that would have felt much different if you had chosen a different school, degree, lender, or path.
Once you start thinking of these choices as a way for your current self to protect your younger self, it’s much easier to let go of your resentment. Your younger self was less savvy and less confident than you are. You can take on this current burden on their behalf, since they wouldn’t have been ready for it. And, you can feel good that you’re also making life easier for your future self, meaning you’re a full-on time-traveling Rockstar who takes care of the past and the future all from your current perch in the present.
Not bad for a slow motion time machine.
Existing in all Times at Once
Traveling in time may not be physically possible—nor even desirable. (The past did not smell good, and who wants to know for sure what the future holds?) But changing the way that we look at time can help us recognize that we do exist in all times at once. Your choices today are based, at least in part, on yesterday’s actions, and your actions today will lead to tomorrow’s decisions.
You can travel through time in slow motion by making choices today that you’ll be glad of tomorrow and by relieving yourself of the guilt or resentment you might feel about past choices. You are showing care for both your past and your future, and doing so can help you feel more satisfied in the now.
Tolstoy once wrote, “Remember then: there is only one time that is important—Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.”
Embracing that truth and that power is the secret to slow motion time travel.