Updated: Mar 22, 2021
I made a silly mistake in a silly video game I’m playing (it’s called Fire Emblem, a turn-based strategy game set in a medieval-ish magical world). I clicked a button by accident which skipped a lot of beneficial actions I could have taken, advancing me straight to a battle that I am not ready for. If I hadn’t pressed that button, I could have trained my team more, leveled up more, prepared more. But I pressed it, and there’s no going back. The deed is done, and I must complete the battle or give up.
If you don’t care for my awesome video game metaphor, just observe that similar situations occur in literally every aspect of our lives. You could have held your tongue during that fight with your significant other, but you didn’t, and the damage to your relationship is done. You could have checked your car’s fluid levels that one hot summer afternoon, but you didn’t, and your car overheated. You could have given that homeless person the burrito you bought, but you didn’t, and they had to go hungry that day. The button is pressed, and there’s no going back.
When you do something that you know to be wrong, the natural response is guilt, though this can come in both helpful and non-helpful forms. In his essay Update from the Suckerpunch, Nate Soares distinguishes two forms of guilt: instantaneous guilt, that first punch of regret you feel in your gut you feel the moment you realize your mistake; and lingering guilt, the recurrent ache that ebbs and flows each time you remember what happened and wish things had been different. The latter, lingering guilt, is retributive; its goal is to punish you for what you did. With lingering guilt, you feel bad, you feel like you should feel bad, and that keeps making you feel bad. But instantaneous guilt (the titular “suckerpunch”) can be rehabilitative. For Nate, the goal is to learn everything you can immediately, fully updating as quickly as possible from that first hit of regret. Then, any further guilt is not teaching you anything or making you better; you can and should let it go forever. In many cases, holding on to lingering guilt actively makes you worse; if you are incapacitated by guilt, how are you going to go out and do good things? You can’t do better next time if you don’t allow there to be a next time. Better to get back on the horse. In short, Begin Again.
There’s a related notion in mindfulness meditation. While sitting in meditation, noticing the breath or other sensations in the body, thoughts just appear. Our brains are constantly talking to us, and we have a tendency to be carried away with these thoughts as they arise; this distraction pulls us away from the practice and makes us forget that we were trying to meditate (even as we sit quietly on a pillow). But after becoming lost in thought for a few seconds, a few minutes, or longer, there is often a moment of clarity where you can become aware of the distraction. In a flash, you see clearly that for the last few minutes, you’ve been thinking–thinking about what you’ll eat for lunch, or about whether your commute will have traffic, or about how great it is that you’re meditating. In that clarifying moment, judgement can arise: “I’m so bad at meditation! What a waste of time!” That judgement, though, is just more distraction. Better to merely notice that you’re distracted, and resolve to get back to what you were doing. Take a long breath. Begin Again.
The meditation example is a clear microcosm, as (for example) I often have to Begin Again every few seconds of my practice. But the imperative is important on longer timescales too. On an old LessWrong post about Sunk Cost Bias (that I can’t find now), I remember a comment that really spoke to me. The comment said that the best attitude toward sunk costs is to imagine, in each moment, what you would do if it wasn’t really you that had lived your past, but that rather you’d been teleported into your present situation one second ago. You have your memories and your experiences, as always, but you imagine that it wasn’t you that lived them. What choice would you make in that scenario? (This is both the Outside View, and in some sense Jordan Peterson’s Rule 2: Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible For Helping.)
For example, if it was someone else (in your body with your brain) who yelled at your wife yesterday rather than you, what would you advise that person to do today? You may wish that person hadn’t done what they did, but still, you have to decide what to do now. Or maybe you’ve spent years working on a project that is simply not working; if it wasn’t you who had done that, what might you tell yourself to do next? Starting now, Begin Again as though this was the beginning.
What all of the scenarios above, and all other situations, have in common is that there’s no going back. You’ll never have that exact fight / afternoon / burrito / video game mistake again; you pressed the button, the deed is done, and now whatever occurs as a result, will occur. Time, for reasons that nobody understands, consciously appears to travel only in one direction: from past to future. So while you may encounter similar situations in the future, you’ll never get a second chance at the past.
Now, for a video game, there’s a reset button; I can turn off the game, start it over from the beginning, and return to the point where I made the mistake and carefully avoid it. Yet, the mistake still occurred, and whatever time and motivation I lost is still lost. Still, the fact that I now have greater likelihood of making the proper choice is a testament to the fact that something was learned. This, too, is precisely what happens for us in the Real World! You made a mistake, but you may soon find yourself in a similar situation in the future, and if you learned from your mistake then you’ll do better. If you’re diligent, you’ll discover new mistakes rather than repeating the old ones. But if you’re diligent, you’ll learn from those too.
My #1 proposal for an absolute moral imperative is: Do Your Best. But my #2 proposal is: Begin Again. Stop doing things that you know are wrong. Then, when you fail (and you will), learn from it, and Begin Again.
The past is a memory, and the future is a hope; all we have is the present moment. This one; and this one; and this one; and this one. You don’t have to needlessly make yourself feel worse about what happened before; that just distracts you further from being better and doing better. Learn from the past, and apply it in the present, to transform the future. Teleport yourself to now. And right now, Begin Again.
And right now, Begin Again.
And right now, Begin Again.