As Americans, we’ve become accustomed to quick fixes. In his latest “From the Chapel” post,…
From the Chapel — June 22: What might have been
“From the Chapel” is a series of short, daily reflections on life and faith in a time of uncertainty. As people across the world cope with the effects of the coronavirus — including the social isolation necessary to combat its spread — these reflections remind us of the hope that lies at the heart of the Gospel.
Have you ever heard of the butterfly effect? The concept, though not the phrase itself, comes from Ray Bradbury’s 1952 short story “A Sound of Thunder.” In 2055, a company called Time Safari transports hunters back in time to kill the most exotic of prey: dinosaurs. The company chooses each dinosaur carefully: Hunters are only allowed to kill one that was about to die anyway so that they won’t disrupt the timeline and change the future. On the trip described in the story, though, a nervous hunter panics when his chosen prey, a T. rex, approaches, and he steps off of the path, crushing a butterfly and unwittingly changing the future.
Over the last 70 years, Bradbury’s plot device has spawned an entire genre of literature, film and TV shows exploring time travel and alternative timelines. Like many of my generation, I’ve found the concept fascinating, but the execution too often leaves much to be desired. A lighthearted take, like “Back to the Future,” may work, but those that attempt to tackle broader historical events, such as Amazon’s recent TV adaptation of “The Man in the High Castle,” tend to get bogged down in current political debates, which makes the work less of an exploration of an alternative timeline and more an obsession with our present one.
To his credit, Philip K. Dick largely avoided that trap in his original novella of “The Man in the High Castle,” published 10 years after “A Sound of Thunder.” He did so by recognizing that what was important in a story about the Nazis and the Japanese Empire winning World War II was not the particulars of Naziism or Japanese imperialism, but the mental structures that we Americans, in the wake of the real World War II, share with them. As the Catholic historian John Lukacs used to say, we are all national socialists now: a startling claim, but one amply demonstrated by Lukacs throughout the body of his work.
The reason to study history, and to write about it in both fiction and nonfiction, is never just to document what happened but to understand those who came before us — and through them, to understand ourselves. No matter how far we think we have “advanced” over our ancestors, as Catholics we recognize that human nature is, at its heart, unchangeable, except by the operation of grace. Anyone who has ever felt that he is just muddling along as best he can in life should be able to recognize that others have done that as well — not just our contemporaries, but our ancestors. The more their experience seems to diverge from ours, the greater the effort we may have to make to enter imaginatively into their world. But the reward is also greater, because to the extent that we can experience their world as they did, we have a different vantage point from which to experience our own — not only our own as it currently exists, but as it might have been, for good and for ill.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.