Past Tense

There’s this certain sub-genre of science fiction that I always loved. Stories where the main protagonist suddenly wakes up in a completely different identity than their own and has to make it work. Usually, that’s how the story will begin – the point of view will be the narrator’s, and they’ll describe hearing an unfamiliar name called several times with increasing urgency until they realize that the shouter is calling them. They won’t recognize anything about their surroundings – even their body will be unfamiliar. They’ll have no idea how it happened, but suddenly now they’re General Bashar of the Fourth Space Army or whatever instead of their “true” identity. And then the rest of the story will be about them making it work, achieving their ends, etc. instead of ending up in the loony bin or being executed as an impostor.

The key central theme of these stories is that of initial acceptance of the situation. That’s what makes the stories heroic. The protagonist could easily just yell “Wait! I’m not General Bashar! I’m just some nobody who is suddenly and improbably thrust into his life!” And if the main character did that, not only would it probably not end well for the character but there also wouldn’t be much of a story. Even if that’s what they want to do initially, they always quickly realize that their only hope is to play along. Though they had absolutely no control over the life they stepped into, they have to do what they can with it, looking for opportunities to get what they want out of what they’ve been handed.

Okay, that’s a weird intro, but here’s the point: you’re living this, every day. Every day you wake up in an identity whose past you cannot affect. The fact that this identity was created by earlier versions of you is totally immaterial. The point is that today, right now, you’re waking up in this identity and you have to figure out how to maximize it. How to get what you want out of what you’ve been given. You have to put the clues together about what this life is all about and then pilot it around until you successfully achieve your goals.

The protagonists in this story always have a very specific but subtle superpower that gives them the ability to win: they care 0% about their past, and 100% about their future. Since the past of this identity doesn’t “belong” to them, they don’t care about it. They don’t consider themselves beholden to the opinions of the “real” General Bashar from yesterday, they only act like him in order to move forward towards their goals. If General Bashar spent every single day of his life lovingly tending to his rock collection, the protagonist is totally okay never looking at another rock unless it brings him closer to his current goals.

That’s a power we should aspire to! The past is nothing more than the starting conditions of our adventure. It gave us the current setup, but it is now unable to affect us and we’re unable to affect it. If we want something new, that new thing is in the future, not the past.

But instead, we carry stress. Stress, regret, fear. We’re tense over things that already happened, that we cannot change and which don’t matter. They’ve already done their damage, even if the damage hasn’t happened yet.

If our enemies have launched the missiles but they haven’t yet arrived, then what happened in the past is certainly going to affect us. But we can’t change the launching, we can only prepare for the arrival of the missiles. The starting conditions can lead to all sorts of conclusions, and you can affect those paths. But you can’t affect the starting conditions at all, so don’t try. Remove your attachment to them. Think of yourself as a new arrival in your own life, every single day. Make your decisions accordingly.

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