A rear-view mirror is still a mirror

People say all the time that they have no regrets.  Me, I’m practically defined by them; a man with no regrets is a man with no imagination, as far as I’m concerned, and I say that all too often for people around me, I suspect.  Still, I confess I’m mystified by people who essentially admit they can’t think of anything in their past that could have gone better had they made a different decision.  Equally, I fail to understand the virtue of still being the same person you were 40 or 50 years ago.  As Muhammad Ali said, someone who has the same opinions at age 50 as they had at age 20 has wasted 30 years of life.

Maybe that’s why, now that I’m old, I have this strange compulsion to revisit my life, to retrace my steps.  I’m drawn to places, both actual and conceptual, I passed through on my way here, to physically visit them, to stand in my own footsteps to see — what?

It’s not at all clear what it is I’m looking for, certainly not a glimpse of myself as I was then; that’s a vision that’s all too clear.  Nor is it primarily an attempt to reconstruct what I was thinking, to re-find or redefine whatever it was I thought I was doing, although that would certainly be interesting.  I’m not looking for redemption, or even a rationale.

Part of it is to correct the unconscious revisions I have made to my own history.  I’m sure you’ve had the experience of reconnecting, after many years, with an old friend or acquaintance, only to find that there are at least two contradictory versions of some common experience.  These things are seldom resolved, though.  We generally each come away wondering how the other person could have gotten the memory so wrong and yet be so sure.  It needs a new term to describe these common events.  How about “memoroid?”  I think that has enough innuendo hanging from it to serve the purpose.

No doubt what I’m looking for is a lot closer to hand and a lot easier to get at than a precisely calibrated reconstruction of the past.  See, I don’t think you can have a realistic assessment of who you are without a clear picture of who you were.

That gets both more and less difficult as you get older.


A somewhat immodest proposal

We Homo sapiens have been around for at least 250 thousand years. The first hints of agriculture appear about 12 thousand years ago, or just under 5% of our existence in our current biological configuration. We’re still evolving, of course, but it’s a slow process, and it’s reasonable to think we’re not much different from those earliest farmers, who were essentially hunter-gatherers with a fancy new startup.

For the majority, then, of our existence, we made our living hunting and gathering, which limited the size and distribution of us. Conditions differed from place to place, of course, but, as a rather small total population, we weren’t in that many different places for a very long time, so those limitations tended to average out and produce groups of 50-200 or so individuals spread rather thinly on the surface. Too many people meant not enough to eat, so a sensible strategy was to avoid other people whenever possible; not all that hard in the beginning.

One way or another, though, we figured out that it was best for us to get marriage partners outside our own groups; how and why is a contentious issue among anthropologists.  In any case, it meant that groups needed to stay reasonably near each other.

It’s not hard to see the awkwardness caused by these two competing strategies. On the one hand, we were congenitally suspicious of outsiders and wanted to either drive them away or kill them, while on the other hand we needed them to procreate. What to do?

The answer was to limit our interactions with other groups in general via warfare or other hostile behaviors, while consolidating our relationships with one or two select groups via intermarriage. Brilliant!

In my opinion, the spread of farming once it was discovered was due to this dynamic of wanting to get away from other people while simultaneously seeking marriage partners among relative strangers. We see this time and again, even explicitly as excuses for expansion, from elbow room to lebensraum. It also explains the intermarriage of European nobility; it’s not that they found each other so irresistible. In a sense, it’s just scaled-up hunter-gatherer strategy.

Which brings us to my proposal. Donald Trump, are you listening? Your son, Barron, is, what, 10 or 11 now? Through most of history, that’s plenty. The great statesman and diplomat Dennis Rodman tells us that Kim Jong-un has a daughter named Ju-ae, who would be about 8 or 9.

I think you can guess where I’m going with this.