Hindsight. The most valuable tool we have for making sense of our place in the world. Valuable? How about unreliable, or fickle, or pernicious? Would we be lost without it? We compile histories within the boundaries of our lives as if sifting through the confusion inside a jigsaw puzzle box to find the straight-edged pieces, fumbling them together to make a pattern of sorts. But even that takes practice. Lots of practice. When benevolent, not only does hindsight help, not only does it allow us to decipher some of the shapes and colours, it can – if we are very lucky – translate connections, mould together fragments of the picture inside that narrow frame to allow vague images to emerge from the jumble. Yet these snapshots are never the whole story; curating them takes time. And time is the currency needed to purchase hindsight. The two exist in a symbiotic relationship. Or a parasitic one.
We say “hindsight is a wonderful thing”, failing to recognise we are enslaved by it, failing to see how it weaves a web like a spider, enmeshing us. We are prisoners dependant on the benevolence of our guard. It feeds us; offers us the illusion of security. Paradoxically, it tells us what to do next; it controls our movements, our thoughts. It defines who we are.
Have you ever noticed how many more words seem to be available when we choose to tell our stories from the relative sanctuary gifted to us by being able to look back on them? The past tense is hindsight’s greatest reward. Even though we can only exist in the ‘now’, we live in the past. It is safer that way. We feel protected – though from what we are unable to say. And for our sacrifice – in part as reward and part recompense – hindsight offers us the richness of language, the blessing of a lexicon made available to us to bestow meaning on what we did. Or what we might have done.
When we tell a story in the present, as if it were happening right now, ‘in real time’, there is a different sense of ‘tense’; something that is taut and sparse and unsure. It is a realm where there are fewer words at our disposal, words that are somehow haphazard, deployed as if we were randomly picking pieces from our jigsaw box without regard, not knowing where they might go, nor with which other pieces they could connect. “Here is a piece” you might say, excited and nervous; but there is another voice which whispers “Give it time; look back on it later; then you will know where it fits”. It is seductive, this voice, promising certainty, comfort. And all the while it steals time from you with a Magician’s sleight-of-hand, its tricks perfected across millennia.
And what about the future? Can you tell a story looking forward into a world where hindsight is banished totally, where there is nothing but expectation and forecast? You gaze into your crystal ball and say “I will do this” and “I will do that”, and you become god-like knowing it will rain or that the bus will be on-time. Or late. Control is yours. Totally. But in this world you have even fewer words at your disposal, the same words, over and over again; and the repetition starts to weigh you down. Under such circumstances there are no individual jigsaw pieces to consider, to caress; all you have is the idea of a jigsaw, and that somewhere there could be a picture towards which you might stumble but never arrive.
Where is the comfort in that? We long for certainty, the assurance of an image we can recognise – in part, at least. A picture grounds us, locates us, gives us hope. It tells us we have meaning and purpose. “Look”, a voice seems to say, “here you are, in this space, and with these things about you, with this relation and this knowledge”. And it is certainty which seduces us, the certainty hindsight offers. I did this; I was there; I saw this; I said that. All of these things frame us, make us. All of these things validate us. It is hindsight’s promise and its reward. And in exchange – as if we had any choice – we give it our lives. We barter away our present, our ‘now’, in exchange for knowing at some point yet to come we will understand where we achieved or failed, won or lost. We become willing slaves to the missed opportunity, the might-have-beens, and ‘once upon a time’ is like a soundtrack playing on an endless loop, allowing us snatches of tunes, fragments of intros we might once have recognised. All the songs we sing are the same, yet we are content. And language – hindsight’s greatest ally – keeps us in our place as we try to tell our story.
There is no ‘now’, only ‘then’.
But this is not a good beginning. You might argue it is an inauspicious way to start, to lay out such a treatise, such a philosophy. It is uncomfortable at the very least. You do not wish to have to consider such complex and nebulous matters. It is not part of the arrangement. All you want is a narrative, a story; something to transport you for a while away from all of ‘this’. You want to lose yourself in someone else’s reality – even if it is a fiction – and you do not care too much in which tense it is relayed; you are prepared to give it a chance, to allow it the opportunity to take you elsewhere. Escape is part of the pleasure, and you do not wish to be challenged with questions about constraints from which you need to free yourself.
What is more, you know enough not to believe all that nonsense about hindsight being a blessing, because you know it isn’t. And you actually do believe you live in the ‘now’; that you have always lived in the ‘now’; that you have 20-20 vision when it comes to the jigsaw of your life – thank you very much! – and you don’t need to have someone tipping all your pieces out of the box and onto the floor, after all, it has taken a whole lifetime to get the picture as partially complete as it now is.
So you just want the other side of this bargain ‘kept up’, as they say; to be distracted with someone else’s puzzle as they struggle to make sense of it.
But isn’t that a little – ‘uninvested’? Or at the very least, lacking in balance? ‘Out of whack’? Don’t you think it would make a little more sense if you made an effort, rather than simply sit back and say “entertain me”? You might get more from the experience if you were engaged, committed, with some ‘skin in the game’. You might, for example, take on the role of the prompter, not exactly to steer the narrative – for how can you possibly do that?! – but to be part of the story somehow. A little more in the ‘now’ of things, rather than simply accepting it all as ‘then’. Wouldn’t that be more fun? Potentially?
Why don’t we try?
Let me give you a man to play with…
How shall we describe him?
Perhaps we shouldn’t describe him at all. The first clause of this agreement is not to spoon-feed you. If you are going to work at this you need to make up your own mind. Think of yourself as a detective of sorts, not that this is a ‘whodunnit’. And if it were, where would the challenge be if you were given the solution straight off the bat? At this stage perhaps it is enough to say that he’s a man, somewhere in his thirties; he has all his limbs intact and his bodily functions are reasonably performant for a man of his age. He looks – ordinary. There are no exceptional physical marks, scars, or blemishes. He does not twitch or stammer. He is just a man. He might – in many respects – be just like you.
But perhaps we should let him speak for himself.
And then you can talk to him.
And perhaps the others too. The ones that are left. The voices that are not missing.from “A Pattern of Sorts“