Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day.
Kurt Vonnegut- Slaughterhouse Five
Books and music. Music and books.
These things have been my salvation in life.
Here’s a little story about one of each.
Let’s start with Kurt Vonnegut and in particular Slaughterhouse Five. This book was a life-changing and perhaps even life-saving book for me. Mostly, it’s Kurt Vonnegut discussing his own wartime PTSD symptoms through the character of Billy Pilgrim, a veteran of the Dresden bombing who becomes “unstuck in time” as he leaps to and from different time periods of his life. Vonnegut worked out his own PTSD symptoms in part by writing this book, but was also making a point about the fierce and awesome power of the mind to time travel. Particularly a mind that has been affected by trauma.
I’ve never been able to shake the phrase “unstuck in time.” It describes things I see as a therapist EVERY single day. Many of my patients just can’t shake loose from traumas or heartbreak from their pasts, and regularly time travel back to those places in their minds, in an endless loop of painful memories.
Others jump in time to the future, where they can’t stop worrying about things that might happen, and all of the bad stuff they’ve conjured up in their minds.
Depression, Anxiety, and PTSD are all functions of people becoming unstuck in time.
But let’s come back to that. I want to tell you about the music part of the story.
A short while ago, I was driving back from the beach, and heard the song, “This is the time” by Billy Joel. It was late at night, I was cold, a bit lonely, and it was a strange song to hear on the radio, all things considered.
I heard the lyrics,
‘This is the time to remember
Cause it will not last forever.’
And I’ll be damned if I didn’t become unstuck in time.
In that moment, I was 21 again, exploring the world, in love, and driving down the open road.
I drove for miles like that before I realized what happened (P.S. it’s a little scary we do that while we’re driving). That was a good memory, but on the other hand, kind of sad. Although I was young and hopeful at the time of that memory, I was also pretty anxious about my future and very unclear about how things were going to work out for me.
The French have a word called Énouement, which means, “The bittersweet feeling of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.”
That’s sort of how I felt.
Now then, back to the mental health side of this.
ALL of us time travel sometimes. Every single one of us. Some of us look back at the past and ONLY remember the good parts. We fondly recall a lost love, but forget all of the reasons that person is out of our lives to begin with. We think our youth was the most fabulous time of our lives, but forget how hard it was being broke and often not really knowing who we were back then.
Others are inconsolable about things that have happened, and simply can’t move on. They become unstuck in time, and replay painful stories and memories in their heads that render them unable to experience joy in the present moment.
Anxious people prefer to visit the future. They’ve already made up their minds about how things won’t work out, and all the things that are going to go wrong. The psychological term for this is “catastrophizing” and it is a hallmark of most anxiety disorders.
In thinking about time traveling and how it affects our functioning, I’m certainly not suggesting we shouldn’t cherish and remember fond memories from our past. And sometimes we DO have to anticipate the things that are coming in the future and plan a little for a rainy day.
But becoming “unstuck” in time is a different matter. This is when our minds take us out of the present moment to visit another time and place to avoid something in our current lives. Perhaps we decline a social invitation because we feel like it couldn’t possibly measure up to an epic time from our past. Maybe we blow off a job interview or turn down a promotion because we’ve already decided to imagine the problematic future consequences we’re sure they might come with.
As John Milton said hundreds of years ago, “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” That’s the power of the mind to time travel. A great memory can totally make our day, but the SAME memory can lead to intense feelings of sadness.
This is the fork in the road. Once upon a time, a VERY long book was written about depression and anxiety called, “I never knew I had a choice.” I slugged through it. It took me weeks.
But 90% of what I got from the book was right there in the title.
I never knew I had a choice.
Perhaps the goal is to learn from the past, behave kindly with regard to our future selves, but understand that the person operating NOW is the only one that can do anything about things.
So yes, I’m going to continue to listen to Billy Joel and look back fondly.
But I sure don’t want to miss anyone great in my current existence that could make tomorrow’s memories a whole lot better. I even put it on my refrigerator.
Be here now.
Be here now.
Be here now…
I don't wanna forget, but I'm sure I will.
So it goes...