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Retrocausality and the Spirit of Our Ancestors: a letter to my son on the occasion of his ninth birthday party


Thanks to my brother, Jude, for this picture!

Dear Charlie,

On the morning of your ninth birthday party, I looked in the mirror and saw my father.  This happens to me sometimes when I glimpse my reflection out of the corner of my eye, especially when I am bearded, as I am now, because it is winter and, as you know, I am a lifelong pedestrian.  In the past, I often tried to deny any resemblance but, it is true that sometimes, from certain angles, even if only briefly, I look like my father.

My father, your Opa, did not come to your birthday party.  I didn’t invite him.  We also didn’t see him at Christmas this year.  The truth is that I have remembered some long-forgotten awful things he did with me when I was a very young child – younger than you are now – and I have needed some time to work through those memories away from him.  This is the case, not because I hate him but because I was afraid I would say or do things to him that I would regret and that would not reflect the kind of person, man, and father I want to be.  I wanted to arrive at some kind of stability and peace within myself before seeing him and talking with him about these memories (if or when I choose to do that again – and I think I will).  Going into a very emotionally charged conversation without having some kind of peace or stability tends to be a recipe for disaster, especially when engaging with people who have neither of those things.  Hurtful things get said unintentionally, the conversation gasps and flaps and lands in unintended places, and people walk away even less contended than they were before.  So I am taking whatever amount of time I need to myself.  There is a different between taking time to yourself because you need it to heal and taking time to yourself in order to punish the other person.  I try to honour the former and avoid the latter although it is not always easy, especially when the positions are reversed and I am the person from whom another person needs a break.  As with most things, we learn how to discern these things by practicing them and, as with any practice, we get better because we’ve failed along the way but never quit.  So try not to let your failures get you down or make you think crummy things about yourself.  It’s all part of the process.  And, besides, you’re amazing.

Sometimes I see my father in me, but I have never seen my father in you, although old pictures suggest that you look a lot like me when I was a child.  Your eye is lighter, though, and your eyes are brighter.  You get those things from your mother.  Your mother and I did not always mix well together but when we did, we helped create out of ourselves, out of our cells and genes and bacterial companions, the most wonderful people whom I have ever known.  One Charlie.  One Ruby.  Isn’t that amazing?

Earlier in the weekend, before your party, I had a lot of fun doing some experiments with magnets and electromagnetism with you.  It is lovely to see you light up with wonder because the world, itself, is full of wonder.  A few nights before, Ruby was amazed to learn that gum comes from trees and that sugar comes from sugarcane and that chocolate comes from cocoa beans.  I showed her pictures of the plants and she was so excited that she perked back up again, even though she was on the verge of falling asleep while I rubbed her back, and made sure that I put a note into her backpack to let her teacher know that she had some very exciting news to share with her class.  We are surrounded by marvels and wonders.  Living with you, your sister, and Jess (and, yes, Petrie the cat and Sally Heartlove Guinea the guinea pig), has been teaching me how to see them again.

One of those wonders is a notion that some quantum physicists have proposed called “retrocausality” (and, granted, these physicists are on the fringe of a science that is, according to, say, Newtonian mechanics, exceedingly odd).  Retrocausality is a fancy way of talking about the possibility that the future can influence the past.  It’s all pretty technical and confusing for people who are not quantum physicists but, basically, the notion of retrocausal influence allows these scientists to better explain what they used to believe was “action-at-a-distance” or “entanglement” or, to use Einstein’s word, something that was just plain “spooky.”  It explains how changing one thing simultaneously changed other things that were like that thing, even though they were a long way away from each other with no obvious means of communication.  That’s a pretty wild thought, so it might help to think of it like this: if scientists try to study the properties of a certain kind of particle, then the tools they use to measure that property influence that property not only from the time they perform their experiment onwards but, also, from the time before they decided to perform their experiment.  In this way, the future influences the past (which, as some physicists have also pointed out, is a logical conclusion to draw from the thesis that the quantum world is time symmetric – i.e. that within this world we can describe the same events as running from the past into the present and on into the future or as running from the future into the present and on into the past, and according to the rules of this world there is no reason to see one trajectory as having any kind of logical or necessary priority over the other—therefore, “time’s arrow” as we experience it, is understood to be a part of the boundedness of our universe and not a universal law, and other situations of boundedness could create arrows going in different directions).

Curiously enough, I first ran into this idea, not by reading science (or even science fiction), but by reading theology.  It was in the post-World War Two writings of the German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, that I first came across the idea that time might flow differently and that the future might, indeed, not only be more hopeful and whole than the past but might actually make all things new, including the past.  Even though he was a student of Moltmann, Miroslav Volf’s teleology of forgetfulness is much less exciting, as are most Christian eschatologies, the vast majority of which have proven to be quite harmful to living things (including children).  One day, perhaps, you will understand why Moltmann’s eschatology has so much appeal to someone from his context, but I hope that day doesn’t come any time soon.  I know that it appealed to me when I first encountered it.  So it’s amusing to me that, all these years later, I find scientists, people not known for engaging in god-talk, coming to similar (albeit much more limited) theoretical conclusions.

It’s amusing, in part, because I don’t much care for god-talk these days.  I now adhere to a much more apophatic realism and have lower expectations of language and mental constructs (as if we are capable of thinking the real, as if it can be put into words – I doubt all this even if I don’t doubt that we can be or experience the real).  However, I have been thinking about this idea of retrocausality in light of some Indigenous teachings that our ancestors live in us and experience the world through us and that we, too, live in the spirit of our ancestors. Of course, this is true in terms of genetics, epigenetics, DNA-methylation, and the ways in which environments can influence the shape, identity, and well-being of an organism.  However, there is something more spiritual implied in this belief and, since I encountered it, I have found it unsettling.  As we’ve touched on a little in our conversations, my father was not a very kind father (I was caught off guard when, after Ruby said I was the best daddy ever, you asked if I thought that I also had the best daddy ever – no, I said, my daddy was not the best daddy ever and he often hurt me and made me sad for reasons that were not fair or right, and you were both sad for me, and I thanked you and said I’m in a good place now and you don’t have to worry about me, and that was the end of the conversation, but I have learned enough about kids to know that kids remember brief conversations and quick moments and, sure enough, Ruby brought this conversation up again a few weeks ago).  So my father was not a very kind father, and my father’s mother was not a very kind mother.  I don’t know if it was the experience of the German-occupation during the war that brought these dynamics into my Dutch family or if they were passed on from generation to generation well before the war (and the one before it).  What I do know is that I had no desire to be so intimately connected to most of my immediate ancestors.  It is here where the suggestion of retrocausality offers something hopeful.  If it is true, that I carry my father inside of me (and there is no denying I do – it’s just a question of how and how much), then by learning to be a kind father, I am also teaching my father how to be kind.  I am teaching my grandmother to be gentle.  I am teaching my ancestors a better way of being and doing.  And by acting this way, the ancestors you and Ruby will carry inside of you will be kind, and gentle, and good.

Of course, you are both already very good (and I persist in believing that it is important to regularly and explicitly tell children that they are good).  That I sometimes get frustrated because I have to ask you multiple times to do something isn’t a sign that you are not good – it’s a sign that I still have a lot to learn.  It is both odd and harmful for us to think that children should immediately do what they are asked to do by their adults.  Most adults do not show the same respect to their children (or to other adults unless they feel like they have to do so in order to not be punished – so swift obedience is often a symptom of unequal and abusive power dynamics).  Children frequently need to ask their adults several times to do something before the adults do it.  I know that this has been the case with me when you’ve asked for a glass of milk or Ruby has asked for a treat.  I get distracted, I’ve already got another project on the go (dinner, prepping schoolbags, texting, sitting in a chair doing nothing), and so you ask me again.  And again.  And this doesn’t happen all the time but it happens about as often as it happens with you and Ruby and so, when you are distracted or busy with other things or just not moving beyond a snail’s pace, I also ask you multiple times for some things.  And we all get these things done.  And maybe we have to ask a few times but it only takes about a minute or two longer than it would take if we acted instantly and that’s really no big deal at all.  Seriously, in all the cases I can think of, it makes no difference at all.  None.  Yet adults are offended and angered if children don’t immediately do as they are asked regardless of the consequences (because it’s not like you have ever been slow to respond on the very few occasions when a quick response really, really mattered – and, generally, kids are good at knowing when things really, really matter and when they don’t).  In fact, some adults feel so offended and angered by this that they will hit their kids in order to train them to act differently.  My dad trained my brothers and I in that way and got the results he wanted.  We always acted quickly and he didn’t have to ask us twice.  What else resulted from this?  My family was viewed as a model family and my parents were praised for having such well-behaved kids.  But my dad did a horrible things and other people evaluated our family in a horrible way.  There is nothing wrong with asking someone a few times to do something.  There is nothing wrong with kids who take a bit of time getting out of bed or dressed or to the table.  There is something wrong if waiting that extra ninety seconds and asking multiple times, makes me frustrated or angry.  So take your time, kiddo.  And I’ll teach my ancestors to be patient.

Although, it’s true what they say about aging causing time to flow faster.  Every year that passes, I wonder where it went. But I will ever only be grateful for these years. You have taught me so much without words and, in turn, I have tried to put those things into words and deeds to teach them back to you so that, as you age, you don’t forget the things you were born knowing. I am being remade in your image and my father is being remade in mine.  And it’s true what Jesus and the prophet Isaiah said all those years ago that, if we truly want a better world, it is little children who will show us the way.  You teach me, and I teach my father in me and, together, we bring love, care, family, and belonging from the future into a past that did not possess them.  Isn’t that amazing?  I think it’s marvels and wonders.  I love you, darling. Happy birthday.

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  1. I hope/pray that I can leave such writing for my kids and grands someday (even when its painful to read). I hope they get to meet someday. Blessings in your work.