In 1453, someone forgot to lock Constantinople’s Kerkoporta Gate, enabling the Ottoman army to sack the city. In late 1862, a Union corporal discovered General Harvey Hill’s battleplans in a discarded cigar box, allowing the Union Army to halt the Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam. Although I neither smoke nor worry about Ottoman sieges, these mistakes unnerve me.
Like most amateur historians, I often spend my evenings scrolling through Wikipedia as my mind toys with counterfactual history. For me, our past is more than what happened—it’s also a matter of what could have happened. Omissions, oversights, and lapses in judgment; these are the plagues that comprise our history and render our imaginations vulnerable to an abyss of alternative worlds. What if someone had locked the Kerkoporta Gate? What if Hill had done a better job safeguarding his sensitive military documents? What would our world look like today?
As you can imagine, this kind of thinking leads me to dread any sort of introspection or self-reflection. The more time I spend studying my past, the more cataclysmic my mistakes become. In turn, each of these mistakes evolves into a distinct storyline, an alternate “Nathan” who torments my mind with his moral, intellectual, and social superiority.
Unfortunately, these imaginary “Nathans” are not confined to my mind; they manifest themselves in my friends, acquaintances, and coworkers. Each of my peers presents another counterfactual, a living monument to my shortcomings. In athletes I see a stronger, more disciplined version of myself capable of balancing school with his desire for fitness. In programmers I see a Nathan who dedicated himself to studying something more economically promising. In my fellow cadets I see another Nathan: a Nathan who focused on his military studies, a Nathan better prepared to lead future soldiers.
Some people may deem such toxic thinking to be that of an insecure, jealous soul. However, I find the term “personal disaffection” more fitting. I understand that life isn’t a zero-sum game of accomplishments and accolades. Thus, I don’t feel threatened when my peers perform well. Instead, I find comfort in knowing that humanity has one more dependable asset to help defeat tomorrow’s crises. What bothers me aren’t the achievements of others, but rather my perceived inability to live up to my alleged potential. Consequently, each passing day devolves into another “could have been” or “should have done,” leaving me locked in a state of perpetual disappointment.
Salvation from my personal purgatory of counterfactuals arrived unexpectedly. My friends and family regularly send me articles to read, but unbeknownst to them, their articles usually end up lost among my computer’s legions of bookmarked web pages. Nevertheless, as last semester came to a close, I finally decided to conquer these bookmarks and, in doing so, came across a fascinating article regarding infidelity. What made the article particularly memorable wasn’t its subject or message (though I found both entertaining). Instead, what stuck with me most was the following quote, by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman: “[T]here is always a suspicion … that one is living a lie or a mistake, that something crucially important has been overlooked, missed, neglected, left untried and unexplored ...”
And there it was, the perfect description of my incessant anxiety, the myth of the better me, the better you, the better anyone. Whether we like it or not, there’s only one version of any of us: the present one. By comparing ourselves to our imagined fantasies, we only risk crushing our actual selves with worthless counterfactuals.
History is full of mistakes. Almost six hundred years ago, someone forgot to lock a door. One hundred and fifty-six years ago a Union scavenger and a careless secessionist helped destroy the Confederacy. Two years ago I foolishly kicked a frozen snowman, bruising two of my toes in the process. These mistakes comprise our timeline, the only timeline that matters, the only timeline that’s real. This is not to diminish the value of self-reflection; acknowledging and analyzing our past is the only way we can learn anything about ourselves. Instead, this piece serves as a warning to those who confuse reflection with self-castigation. Simply put, you cannot compare yourself with something that doesn’t exist.
So stop dreaming of counterfactual timelines. Stop coveting a better past. Stop searching for your failings in the achievements of others. Instead, strive to improve your present self, not for the sake of meeting a fictional standard, but to better serve your future.
Nathan L. Williams ’18 is a Government concentrator living in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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