The limits (and awkwardness) of hindsight

William Witwer

They say hindsight is 20/20, which, if it was true, would be a comforting thought. We think that looking back on the past gives us absolute certainty.

But it doesn’t.

Of course, there is some reliability in our interpretation of the past. I, however, intend to explore the limits of hindsight in this and several subsequent columns. I want to know how and where our impression of the past doesn’t match with reality. Let me tell you a story in which my perception of what happened was missing a crucial detail.

So I had a crush on this girl: Emilie. Who she was is unimportant.  In hindsight, I realized that trying to ask this girl to homecoming on the phone was my first mistake. Unfortunately I was too nervous to do it any other way. I even wrote out what I was going to say to make it easier. Homecoming came up, and suddenly there was a tiny pause in the conversation. “This is your moment,” I thought, and tried to coax the words from the notebook page into my mouth. What I ended up saying, though, was directed to myself.

“Should I do it?” I said into the phone.

“What?” she shot back. It wasn’t really my finest moment. After asking myself the same question later in the conversation two more times (two!), I eventually spilled my awkward proposal. She rejected me with such grace and aplomb that it wasn’t even all that disappointing.

After it happened, I told my friends the story and they almost died laughing at my foolishness. And who could blame them, really? I thought that she had heard me ask myself a question, and so I distanced myself from her in small, subtle ways.

As high school continued, I eventually grew able to laugh at the folly of this situation. Two or so years passed and when a friend of mine teased Emlie about this incident, I learned some fascinating information. As it turned out, she had no recollection of the question I posed to myself. Small victories, I guess.

In my fevered and regretful head, I had been so sure she had heard me and been weirded out. I had been so certain of that “fact” that I felt awkward around her and let a friendship fade away that would have been rewarding. But my certainty was, clearly, misplaced. That shit is something you would remember (unless she blocked it out of her memory banks).

If this taught me anything, other than not to talk to yourself on the phone: not a lesson I ever thought I would have to learn, believe me: it is how muddled the power of hindsight really is. A lot has been written about the deficiencies of memory, but I think that even if you remember the facts fairly well your interpretation of them might be questionable.

The fact is, the world we live in is confusing. Trying to comprehend it is the job of philosophers. And the future is, almost by definition, unsure. Obviously.

But we want the past to be different, to be able to be perfectly understood by dedicated study of the evidence. And it would be this clear, if only we only had all the information: but that’s never going to be possible because the information we have of the past is gathered in the mystifying and inadequate present.

Conventional wisdom talks about the illuminating power of hindsight with tired aphorisms, but I believe that in many ways the past is just as muddled and confusing as the present and just as uncertain as the future.

Yes, the past allows us to reflect on all of the gathered evidence at once, but the puzzle will always be incomplete. Often, there is a huge piece missing and you don’t even know it. Like the fact that she honestly didn’t hear you make a fool of yourself.