The stories of my life are non-linear, in fact many of them occur concurrently. You see, while causality stretches forward in a straight line for most, the actions and consequences of my life slither sideways. If those stories have taught me anything, it’s that the universe is merely a state machine created by God and the entirety of creation is simulated in his mind as he reconciles our actions against arbitrary rules. It’s important that you understand that this machine can be paused, its state saved, and its state reloaded.
I’m told children do not understand regret with the same profundity that they experience guilt. Perhaps it is in the eyes of parents that they experience condemnation for their transgressions, rather than from some internal guiding star of morality. Kids are more likely to spend their hours of punishment plotting how not to get caught next time than they are to experience regret over actions they have committed in the past. This was explained to me a great many times over the decades, but it does not ring true to my experience.
I recall one recess not holding the door to the playground open for a classmate. She was not hurt, probably never even noticed my minor impoliteness and continued on to enjoy her 1st-grade recess unhindered by consequence. My precocious sense of propriety denied me an enjoyable break from the unrelenting boredom of my classes and I spent the next 15 minutes considering what I had done. What had I been focused on that overrode my consideration of her location relative to mine? I knew that she was behind me when I opened the door, but for some reason I hadn’t bothered to calculate the distance she would travel relative to the speed with which the heavy door would close. And what of the consequences? It wasn’t until after I had released my hold on the door that I determined that her impact with the door would be noticeable. Sloppy.
I hadn’t thought any of those things in the moment. I considered blaming it on the sunshine and my eagerness to escape another bloody lesson in single-digit multiplication, but deferring blame to a natural (and entirely predictable) force did not strike me as fair or helpful.
No, it was my fault, and I would have to live with the negligible, but material consequence that little Annie might resent my discourteous behavior that day. I tried to look forward, considering how this might impact my future experiences, but drew a blank.
Just because I can’t conceive of the consequences doesn’t mean there aren’t any.
Worst of all I knew I could never correct this wrong, I would never have the identical opportunity to do right and thus cancel out the experience that now plagued me, admittedly far more than it did Anne.
“Jean, are you alright?” I took stock of my surroundings. How long had I been thinking? The schoolyard was deserted, only an under-inflated soccer ball indicating it had been populated by carefree children minutes before. Mrs. Jacobson was walking towards me from the accursed door. “Why didn’t you go inside?”
I turned to face her and stopped time for a moment. I considered the next few seconds very carefully – what outcome did I want from this? Was it enough to escape suspicion, to appear as if I hadn’t simply been too dumb or distracted to obey the bell? No, I wanted to be a bit more creative, and besides I had wanted to try a new strategy on an adult for a few days now. Mrs. Jacobson, an aging schoolyard monitor was a low-risk target for experimentation; the blowback from this going wrong would be minimal. I let time resume.
I gave her a look like I was trying not to cry, my face scrunched into a combination of confusion and shame. “They told me to stay out here.” I hesitated as I spoke, pretending to choke slightly on the words. This rarely worked with my parents of course, they knew me too well, but I was betting she wouldn’t take the risk of upsetting me further and would instead dig deeper into my charade.
Mrs. Jacobson shifted her demeanor immediately. “What’s wrong Jean?” Some of the other schoolyard monitors would have ignored my emotions, simply insisting I return to class and deflect the problem to my teacher. Why in particular was this woman affected by the threat of tears? It wasn’t enough that this ploy was successful; I needed to know why it was effective so I could identify this weakness in others.
“The boys in grade five… they said I had to stay out here. They said they’d give me one of their candies if I waited until they came back.” I realized my mistake the moment the lie left my lips. Adults responded poorly to mistakes based in greed or gluttony. I should have claimed that they forced me to clean the field, or something else that made my manipulation appear noble instead of self-gratifying.
I could see in her eyes, albeit through absurdly thick lenses in equally absurdly dated glasses, that she believed me, but my mistake was worthy of her admonishment instead of the praise that my alternative story of misguided do-goodery would have prompted. “Oh Jean, you’re too gullible, those boys were never coming back out. Did they even have any candy?” Reaching for my hand she escorted me back into the building.
“I guess not.” I replied, the foregone conclusion of this exchange drained my interest in expanding the lie further. She probably saw this as the veiled acceptance of my naivety. I bet she felt proud for teaching me a lesson, I bet she told herself at that very moment that she was preparing me for a cruel world. I bet she wishes someone told her at a young age not to believe in free candy. Dammit, that was her narrative and not mine, and I had no interest in letting her impose it on me.
I became angry, though I made efforts to conceal it from my face. This is what happens when I make mistakes – I get taught lessons by other people who needed their own advice decades ago. My life is not the continuation of my parents’ minus their mistakes, as if I exist only to course-correct for my forebears.
I receded from my own thoughts long enough to take stock of my surroundings, I was back at my desk already. I don’t remember what happened over the last few minutes, presumably I was unceremoniously deposited back where I “should” be by Mrs. Jacobson and was directed to my seat by my teacher.
Wherever I’m told to be is always where nothing I do matters.