Who you were was the only person you could possibly have been says Graham Price
One of the most powerful truths about life is known to only a relative few. It will probably surprise you. You may think it can’t be true. I can assure you it is true. This truth is that everything you’ve ever thought, felt or done is the only thing you could possibly have thought, felt or done at every moment of your life …. so far.
The explanation is remarkably simple. Everything we’ve ever thought, felt or done was totally determined by just two things. The first was the situation we were in at the time. The second was who we were at that moment. Who we are is made up of a long list of attributes and characteristics, including the ways we’ve learned to think, our attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, abilities, morals, values, personality, mindset, our strengths and weaknesses and a bunch of other characteristics. Some of those characteristics can change day by day or even minute by minute, such as our knowledge when we read an article like this. But at any past moment they were what they were. And at that moment they totally determined what we thought, felt or did, given our situation at the time.
People hearing this for the first time may think “surely we still had a choice regarding what we said or did?”. Certainly we had a choice. We make hundreds of choices every day. The question isn’t whether we had a choice. The question is …. why did we make the choice we made? And the answer is always because of our situation and who we were at that moment. Could we have made a different choice? No! There would need to have been something slightly different about us.
All philosophers, and others who understand the topic, know this to be true. Philosophers are wary about revealing these truths. Many believe that telling everyone that everything they’ve done is the only thing they could have done would give a wonderful cop-out for bad people who’ve done bad things. But in fact there’s nothing negative about knowing these truths and a huge amount that’s positive. It eliminates regret, self-blame and blaming others. But it doesn’t remove responsibility. The meaning of responsibility just changes from blame for the past to what we need to do ‘now-forward’ in relation to any negative things we may have done. And the consequences of our actions, such as via the justice system, and learning lessons from the past, are still just as necessary to maintain order and progress. Nothing is lost by knowing the past couldn’t have been different. It’s too late to change it anyway.
In case you’re thinking this means we have no control over our future, you’ll be pleased to hear that most philosophers only apply this thinking to the past, not the future. The future can still be wide open, just as we’ve always known it to be. And we’re still free to become whoever we want to be, within practical limits. This of course creates a paradox, as when we get to the future and look back, everything that’s happened is once again the only thing that could have happened.
The resolution of this paradox lies in the present moment. Philosophers understand that our thoughts, feelings and actions are driven by our auto-pilot practically all the time. ‘Auto-pilot’ is another term for describing who we are at any moment. Most philosophers take the view that the present moment can offer an opportunity to escape from our auto-pilot and exercise ‘free-will’. But we’re only able to do this if we’re aware of our auto-pilot, the limiting patterns it may be generating and how to break through those patterns. Couldn’t we have done this yesterday? No. At least not unless we did it. The evidence for this is that we didn’t do it. An ability to do this is the key to taking control of who we are and who we become.
Awareness of these truths and their implications is extraordinarily powerful. It generates total acceptance of the past and present. It gives us an understanding of the role of our auto-pilot and how we can gain control of our future, and it puts us in control of our mind and enables us to create a much more powerful mindset.