The Freedom We Soon May Have

Posted on May 8, 2012

Monday morning quarterbacking

We have a love affair with second chances. We tell ourselves how much better it would be this time around, if we could have just one more try. That relationship. My education. That once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I completely screwed up.

Monday morning quarterbacking is one of the biggest and most interesting errors of judgment made by intelligent people. We all know that hindsight is 20/20, but when it comes to the challenge of learning from our mistakes, this bias is hard to avoid.

He should never have thrown that pass!

What if you could do high school again? Not the present you, enriched with knowledge, scars, victories, experience. But the past you, the one you were then. I mean, really do it over again. Be honest: how different would it be? I haven’t met anyone who can say it would be any different. You’d still be a troublemaker, or a loner, or betray your best friend with his hot girlfriend or whatever it was that you did. You wouldn’t have the strong moral backbone you have now, nor would you be able to see the consequences of your choices any better than you did back then.

The reason Groundhog Day is such a delightful movie is because of the seepage. Our hero gets to (has to!) repeat the same day over and over and over. But he has the benefit of learning from his mistakes; the lessons persist through each successive outtake.

Pick a choice you regret: maybe you didn’t ask the girl to dance, or you lied to your husband, whatever. Obviously you are now fully aware of the consequences of that choice. If you put yourself back in that moment, can you get it to play out any differently? Be sure you set up the situation properly! Your emotional state, the state of your relationships, the recent challenges you faced, the situations you knew were about to come your way. Everything. Don’t forget the field factors that had nothing to do with you (and you may have been barely aware of them at the time). Context is everything.

Sure, in the clear light of day, you probably can see choices that weren’t available at the time, or you saw them but they were unreachable. Again, if you’re honest, you’ll see that if the choice was unreachable the first time, it would have to be unreachable each time you repeated the same scenario. The only way out is to cheat (à la Groundhog Day), or to retrofit yourself with more strength or courage or insight than you actually had. Real decisions don’t happen in the clear light of day; they happen in the heat of the moment.

So as we look back at our choices, it is essential to feel into the difference between “I could have/should have done it differently” and “Wow, I really need to develop more.” These responses are light years apart. The “I need to develop” response is a recognition that the only way forward is to build more capacity. Without it, we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes, hoping that somehow, next time, I’ll be stronger, I just know I will.

This should be a huge relief. This one insight can free you from all regret. It’s what true self-acceptance looks like: it includes humility and an appropriate amount of pressure to develop for an improved future. Ideally, that future includes a greater capacity for creative response in challenging situations.


The universe seems to have its own agenda, its own direction. It’s cool that we’re able to see it, talk about it, interact with it. But in the end, its direction existed long before we perceived it.

The essence of the universe is creativity. You can subdivide creativity in many ways. My current favorite is to see creativity as the movement towards increasing diversity and interconnectivity, which are two things the universe seems to be insatiable about, and the two ingredients in the recipe for complexity.

In addition to creativity, there is a second force: randomness. Perhaps it’s not even a force at all, just a mischievous monkey on the back of the evolutionary creative force. There’s an ever-present element of uncertainty as the universe pushes onward towards complexity. Whether it’s in the irreducible probability fields of electron clouds, or in the DNA mutations that relentlessly spike the evolutionary punch, there’s no escaping unpredictability. Try as we might, we are able to exert control over only so much of the life process. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but randomness is always there to thwart our best attempts at predicting or controlling.

If humans weren’t here to discuss it, would the universe still move forward with its endless experiment in creativity? Obviously it would, and this shines a light on the human experience of creativity. We have a particular sensation during the creative process and the search for novelty. It could be that, as the first self-consciously aware creatures, we are the first to perceive the universe’s own experience of creativity. In other words, even though it feels personal and private, that sensation of creation is not in fact our own, but it is sourced in the deeper structures of the universe. We may feel as if we’re doing the creating, but we’re just vessels through which the deep forces of the universe flow.

Artists often speak of “getting out the way,” and I think we all can relate. There’s something that wants to be born, and it needs us to keep our hands off while simultaneously energizing the process. We often see ourselves as the pregnant mother, when we’re actually the midwife. So you can take your self-image of being a creative person (or being a not creative person) and drop it like the insanity it is. Creativity is not yours or mine, never was. Your creativity, like the entirety of you, is powered by the fire burning through the whole universe and propelling it infinitely forward.

I’m not telling you to be passive. Just to question who gets credit for your genius. Are you the heroic figure in life’s epic tale? Or is the distinction between figure and ground artificial and narcissistic?

Feedback Loops

Let’s go back to that regrettable decision. If you tried to learn from your experience, you probably thought about the choice you made quite a bit. You rolled it over in your mind, looking at the many factors that formed the context in which your choice happened. Then, if you were smart, you didn’t say “ok, I’ll do it better next time,” because you’re not very likely to make a different choice without applying some form of self-improvement.

So you began a process or practice to plan for the future. Something that has a good chance of changing your inner landscape, to ensure that next time (if it does come) you’ll have more strength or clarity or courage than you did the last time. Anything from therapy to meditation to kung fu. Building a new inner culture takes hard work!

The amazing thing about spiritual development is that it snowballs. The inner strength you build becomes the new context for the next level of development. Rinse and repeat. Keep doing it, and you’ll find yourself accelerating in an exponential curve. It starts out fairly flat, but persist and you’ll understand the spiritual meaning of compound interest (and why it really does pay to start saving money in your twenties). It’s a feedback loop of depth, clarity, insight, humility, and passion.

Feedback loops are the doorway into chaos theory. There comes a point at which all predictability is lost, and you stop being able to do a linear regression analysis to see the future. In the case of human spiritual development, I wonder if there is a sort of “event horizon of consciousness” that breaks our current scales of measurement. Chaos theory would be more relevant than current structural developmental models. The forces of creation and randomization would fuse, and none of the current rules of freedom or creativity — or just about anything else, for that matter — would apply.

This is the point beyond which we will be a different species.

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