Sometimes I feel like a billiard ball.
Well, I HAVE felt that way many times in the past, and if I’m honest, there are still days when I think I’m headed for the corner pocket with a spin, some English, and a little blue chalk to go with it.
Don’t we all feel a bit like that?
It seems that life gives us little choice. We’re racked up on a table with sides too tall to escape, and then targeted by a cue-ball, which itself has been aimed by a mystery, master of the green, a Minnesota Fats, lurking somewhere just beyond our vision, who would like nothing better than to smash us into some hole or other via Newtonian physics.
Or maybe it feels more like a ship on a vast, stormy ocean, knocked about by massive waves of misfortune over which we have no control. It seems our crew is wearing a red shirt, and a stupid sailor hat, and has just thrown the anchor overboard. Looks like that 3 hour tour is gonna be extended a bit, Skipper..
How can anyone hope to succeed when all around us seems in upheaval, or to be far beyond our control?
Is our path preordained? Who is in charge of our lives? Fate? Fortune? Gilligan?
Doesn’t the past drive the present?
This is an age old question, I’ve come to realize. But I think most of us have gotten the answer wrong. I sure as fuck have.
Bootstraps & Boat Wakes
The problem is a misconception, I think, of how time works, of how cause and effect work. And this misconception leads to two camps of thought: bootstrapers and Boat Wakers.
The Bootstrappers, and I used to be one so I know, argue that the individual has all the power to control his destiny, that no matter the situation, the individual ultimately holds the future in his or her own hands.
The Boat-Wakers—and I’m pretty sure no one actually uses this term, but I’m gonna introduce it because it segues into the rest of this fuckin’ article, so hang on just a few minutes and I’ll ‘splain’ it—contend that the past, in many ways, determines the present and future of the individual. That the environment into which one is born, and in which one lives, determines to a great extent what one can accomplish. It limits the possibilities.
In fact, both are correct positions. They are equally full of shit.
The reason they’re both wrong is the more interesting and important topic, so let’s look at it.
It’s all about ships, and seas, and captains and wakes.
The late, great, philosophical entertainer—his own title—Alan Watts, once pointed out that our Western conception of time was all wrong. Or at least in his opinion, it was. He argued that while it appears that the past creates the present, it is in fact the other way round. The present isn’t a tiny fraction of a second between the past and the future, both of which don’t exist.
The past doesn’t exist, not because it didn’t happen, not because events didn’t occur in the past, but because everything we know about, think about, and say about the past, occurs only in the present. Think about that one for awhile. It’s fuckin’ true.
The future, on the other hand, NEVER exists, in more than some shadowy concept of wants, desires, plans and dreams. It is even less real than the past. At least the past once kind of existed, even if it didn’t really because when it did, it was the present.
Watts argued that the present is actually massive, not fleeting. It is the only thing there ever is. In fact, there is only one moment in time: the present.
Watt’s proposed that it was more instructive to think of the present as a ship, moving through time, and that the past was no more than the wake of that ship, ripples in the ocean of time. He suggested that it was ridiculous to think that the wake drives the ship. No, it’s the other way around! The ship moves through the ocean, and creates a wake that trails off behind it. The wake doesn’t move the ship, anymore than the past drives the present.
I like that metaphor. Let’s run that ship a little further through the sea, and see where we end up. Will will hit an iceberg and end up at the bottom listening to Maria Carey wailing, or will it be ‘tropic island nest’ with Gilligan, and the Skipper, too?
Let’s—for the sake of playing with an idea—accept that Watt’s proposal is correct: the present creates the past.
If so, does that mean that the past has no value?
I’m an historian, or I was before the economy went to shit, so I kind of like the past. I would argue that the past still has value. Those ripples, the wake of our Ship of the Present, show us the direction whence we came, and suggest the direction that we are headed. But they do not determine either thing.
Yes, we came from back ‘thataway.’ We can clearly see that when we look back. And that suggests that if we keep the current course, that we will hit that iceberg, or run into that storm, and be forced to listen to Maria, or hang out with Ginger and Mary Ann.
Personally, I’ll take the latter, and not just because they’re hot, but because they’re on an island, and ole ‘Jack’ ended up sleepin’ with the fishes in a very cold, fuckin’ sea. No thanks.
But the wake of a ship has no real control over where the ship ends up. That is up to the man at the wheel, the Captain. Hopefully, your ship’s second mate is a little more skilled than the one on the S.S. Minnow. You, me, everyone, might be sailing a ship of the Present, and come through some very rough waters in the past, but we don’t have to hit that iceberg, and we damned sure don’t have to listen to Maria Carey, or watch her lip-sync, or is that lip-sink?
Fuck no! We can turn the wheel! We have control over that. That’s where the Bootstrappers—remember them?—got it right. Maybe they should be called the Ship-Capitans instead?
But ship captains don’t have control over EVERYTHING, right?
Sure, the Skipper could have chosen a better first mate than Gilligan, and the captain of the Titanic could have heeded the warnings of ice looming in his path, but he didn’t control the ice, any more than the good ole Skipper controlled the storm that sprang up in his path. These things are just the nature of the Sea of Life. Shit happens; man it really does. We have no control over that!
Life is really like the Sea of Time upon which we are sailing our Ship of the Present, to continue with Watt’s analogy. No, the wake of the ship doesn’t determine the direction we go in the future, though it does tell us what direction we are currently headed. What it doesn’t tell us, is if there is a storm or an iceberg in our path.
In other words, the wake of the ship really isn’t Nostradamus. It also has no power over the wheel of the ship. That is under our control, even if we think it isn’t. We can turn the fuckin’ wheel.
But where to turn? That is the question.
And that’s where the Bootstrappers/Ship-Capitans get it wrong. They argue that the future is under our own control. That if we just pull up on our bootstraps, or turn the wheel, we can determine where we end up, presumably with loads of cash, sitting on some island with Ginger and Mary Ann, like Thurston Howell the Third. But that rules out the playing field, the sea in which we sail.
Sure, we can turn the wheel, but in which sea are we sailing? Is it the Pacific, or the Atlantic? And don’t tell me there’s no difference! Icebergs and frozen watery graves are not tropical islands with hot actresses. There’s a big fuckin’ difference my friend.
Some Ship-Captains are sailing massive yachts with powerful engines and galleys full of caviar, in the South Pacific. Some of us are rowing bass-boats, while bailing out seawater, limping across the icy North Atlantic. You might be swamped by the wake of a yacht speeding past you on the way to their island or iceberg. Or, you might get lucky and be just enough out of their wake to turn behind them and land on that resort island that they missed while zipping into the future.
It’s hard to see all of your opportunities when you speed through life. Many a captain has reach the land of gold to find it full of headhunters, or sailed right past a land of milk and honey—things you can actually eat and drink. Gold, as a rule, isn’t that tasty.
And most sea captains don’t get to choose where they sail, though as a rule, if you own a yacht, you have a lot more choice where your boat launches.
The sea in which we sail isn’t usually of our own choosing. THAT’s the difference between those who THINK they are bootstrapping their way to success, when actually they were born on a yacht, or at least a pretty good power-boat, and the vast majority of us were thrown into the icy waters in a fuckin’ dingy, and then told to ‘bootstrap’ it man.
Bullshit. Yes, we can still turn our dingy, but it doesn’t turn, or move, as quickly as the yacht. But both yachts, and dingys can end up at the bottom of the ocean, sinking or lip syncing with Maria Carey, or sail on safely to a tropical paradise.
Either way, the past, or the wake of the ship had very little to do with it. Nor did the plans of the captain. Much of it is luck of the draw, the sea you were given to sail. But if you don’t keep moving through the water, one thing is certain; you will end up at the bottom eventually. So turn the wheel, or not, but keep the throttle down, or the paddles pumping. Because it’s better to hit something while attempting to reach the island, than to sit still and be certain you never will.