Wednesday, January 05, 2005

"What would you change if you could?"

Funny how even the lamest things can make you think.

I recently did the unthinkable and rented (at a friend's behest) "The Butterfly Effect" with Ashton "I'm So Annoying Dave Wants to Bash My Face In" Kutcher.

For those who haven't seen/heard of it, it's the story of a boy who grows up suffering from severe black-outs, which create gaps in his memory at critical points. This, coupled with his family's history of mental illness, causes him to study up on brain function, and in college he stumbles upon a way to recover his lost traumatic memories. Not only that, but as he does this, he finds he can actually go back to these moments and change the past. What he doesn't realize is that each change has unforeseen (and often terrible) ramifications on his present. Each time he tries to improve his life and the lives of those he cares about, he ends up making things worse.

The name comes from a term coined by a professor in Chaos Theory. Chaos Theory, for the uniniated, purports that in a system where everything else is constant, a small change of circumstances at the beginning of a reaction could create a drastically different (or almost unrecognizable) result. (Read "Jurassic Park," it's explained there.) Anyway, this professor gave the example of a butterfly flapping its wings, which stirs up pollen, which causes another animal to sneeze, which starts a stampede, etc., etc., until finally it results in changing the weather patterns in an entire geographic region. In the movie, this effect is demonstrated throughout the various permutations of Evan's reality. The farther back he goes and makes a change, the larger the impact of his actions.

The movie itself is a bit mediocre. The dialogue is pretty cheesy at points, but the plot is interesting, and the idea the directors were trying to convey was ambitious enough to earn my begrudging respect. It's the type of movie that, with a few changes, could have been genius.

But, as the movie might ask, what cost would come with those changes? What would be lost?

(There are also a few minor thematic similarities to "Donnie Darko", for those of you who are fans of that film. Not that "TBE" is anywhere near as good as "DD," but there are moments of similar choices and crises.)

The main premise of the movie is that each choice, each circumstance, each event, can have unforeseen, long-reaching consequences. Change one thing, and the dominoes start falling until your whole life is different.

For those of us plagued with compulsive introspection, this idea is nothing new. The question of "what if" is one that constantly follows us. Each time we make a choice, we alter our destiny just a little (or a lot). Sometimes, we think back on these choices and think, "What if I had taken the other job, or gone to the other school, or asked out the other girl? Would my life be better?"

Invariably, our assumed answer of the second question depends on how we feel about our current circumstances. If you hate your job, it's easy to think that "if only I had taken the other job, my life would be so much better." Nevermind that the other job would have just as many difficulties or just as annoying people. But humans are short-sighted... linear. We can't really imagine any other path than the path we've chosen, without imagining that other path to be far nicer (or far worse) than our own. This is why in Ecclesiasties 7:10, the Teacher says, "Do not say, 'Why were the old days better than these?' For it is not wise to ask such questions."

A very dear friend of mine, whom I miss very much, has a tattoo on her back of the Counting Crows line I used as this post's title. "What would you change if you could?" it asks. I would imagine that she, like anyone else, sometimes wishes she could change things. Yet, if she had made different choices early on, her life would have been much different, and I likely would have never had the joy of growing to love and respect her as my friend. Not only would I and others miss out on her, but I think she'd say that there are things and people in her life now that she wouldn't give up for the opportunity to start over. And I feel the same way about my life.

What I've said before, and I still believe, is that the past is context, and context is everything. I am who I am, because of the choices I've made, the circumstances I've encountered, and the relationships I've had and lost. Each of these things, good and bad, has shaped who I am. Not to say I'm perfect (far from it) or that I'm done growing (farther from it), but anyone who says "if only i had done this thing or gone there or met/dated/married that person" is inviting misery, and a blind, foolish misery at that. Especially if you serve a God that says "See, I am doing a new thing!"

I have been blessed to not have lived through the traumas that the characters in that movie have, or that many people in this real and ugly world have. I have been spared major cataclysmic suffering. But despite my comfortable and easy life, there were still moments that I wish I could have back, small things, things that I regret. Yet, I know that redoing mistakes, trying to erase my brokenness, may be as much an attempt to do away with the necessity of grace, as trying to fix what I've broken. But each mistake, and each consequence, has served as a constant reminder of my brokenness, and it's only when I accept it, that I can surrender to the redemption I've been given.

I'm rambling at this point, but I have a few more ideas to touch on.

One important thing the movie demonstrates, as I mentioned, is the impact of small choices and their large consequences. One would think that this is an intimidating or even downright frightening idea; it would be easy to be petrified of doing the wrong thing and fouling up the rest of your life. But I think it really serves as a reminder that every choice matters. Like in "It's a Wonderful Life", the way you treat others, the sacrifices you make small or great, the decisions you arrive upon, all have impact--not only on your life but the lives of others as well. So stories like "The Butterfly Effect"--for me, anyway--always drive home the importance of walking in the Spirit, as a believer. Each opportunity to do good that God has laid out for us (Eph. 2:10) is an opportunity to have an impact in someone's life, who in turn may minister to someone else.

In all of this nonsense, I also haven't even touched on the notion of God's will (predestination vs. free will), in regards to living in the real world. Partly because I'm not clever enough to discuss it well. However, I want to make a small comment.

Other clever readers who have specific opinions on such things might say, "But Dave, it's all about the undeniable will of God in your life." And I believe this is true. But in my reading of C.S. Lewis, I came to what I think is a better understanding of the so-called "free will vs. predestination" debate.

I think part of the problem a lot of people have with this concept of God predestining our actions, as opposed to giving us autonomy to make our own choices, is really a problem with our understanding of time. Or rather, our place vs. God's place, within time. (If I had the book with me, I'd pull out a quote that helped me see this. Oh well.) Because God is El Olam--the God before, after, and outside of time--He sees the end from the beginning. He sees every permutation of every choice we can make. He knows the outcome of every flapped butterfly wing. And he has worked all of these choices together as part of his grand master plan, orchestrating every momentary drama of the human race into one prolonged symphony.

So, in reality, predestination and free will actually work in concert. God gives us free will, yet knows the choices we will make, and works through those choices and their results to accomplish His will--thus predestining our actions as part of his plan. We see it as predestination because we think in terms of progression. What we forget is that there is no "pre"-anything with God. Nothing is before; nothing is after. God lives in the eternal "now." And in this "now," he sees my first step, my typing of this post, and my last breath, all at once.

Because He sees all things, and all possibilities, what we often label as "God's will" may simply be the best set of choices, which we seek to make through Christ's ennabling power. Yet if we don't make all those best choices, by walking with Him day by day we can remain "in His will" in a general sense.

(The concepts, however crude, make sense to me. I'd like to thank my reformed readers in advance for showing me grace in the comment box.)

I don't know. I'm still working on it.

But there it is. Psychological and theological analysis, all thanks to a very-R-rated Ashton Krapper movie.

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