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The First Law of Time Travel: Don’t Change History – Thelma B. Freedman (Is.17)

Thelma B. Freedman, Ph.D.

As all sci-fi savvy people can tell you, The Federation’s First Law of Time Travel is “Don’t Change History.” There is an intriguing short story by Isaac Asimov about this. An eminent professor of chemistry is giving a lecture to a packed auditorium; he is carrying out the first trial of his new “time machine,” which will carry one drop of water back in time several million years. As he speaks he fires up his apparatus (sparks and humming sounds) and carefully drops the fateful drop of water onto the waiting plate of glass. More sparks and louder humming sounds ensue. The professor continues to talk, describing what the machine is doing, and as he does so everyone in the auditorium (including himself) slowly changes into green scaly reptilian creatures. The professor’s words come out in squeaks (but everyone understands him fine) and the building itself changes shape. Alas for the poor professor, no one realizes anything has happened. The experiment is declared a failure, and he is hooted out as a crackpot and a charlatan, ruined for life.

Now this is the extreme case, of course. But it shows the pickles we could get into by changing “real” history. So the question here is, are past-life stories “real” history or not? And the answer to that is, we don’t know.

What we do know is that past-life stories are “real” in the client’s mind. One can say that something “real” is something that has consequences in the world, and the dilemmas and traumas of past-life characters have definite consequences in our clients’ lives. At emotional, physical, and spiritual levels, past-life stories are “real” history with real consequences for real human beings.

So should this past-life history be changed? Many past-life therapists (including myself) routinely use rituals in which the client is encouraged to clear up any unfinished business from the past life before leaving it. These include rituals of asking for and giving forgiveness and saying goodbyes that were not said in the past life. One can call this rescripting; it is changing the history that the client has produced in the past life. But perhaps a better word might be “augmenting.” The reason most past-life therapists use these rituals is simple: They work. They relieve the client of “old tears,” old griefs, old grudges, old hurts. Such rituals are usually carried out in the interlife, after the past life has been examined and understood, and they may be the most important part of what we do. When used in this way, they “complete” the past-life story, finalize it, close it out and remove any lingering effects. These lingering effects are often the very problems the client has come for therapy for.

I believe these rituals are most effective if the client leads the way: if the client recognizes what the “unfinished business” is and finds the best way to deal with it. I, as the therapist, may think that a certain person in the past life should be forgiven, but if the client does not get that insight spontaneously, I am probably wrong. Or I could be right but the client may not be ready to forgive that person yet. Either way, I believe I should follow the client’s lead.

These rituals are helpful to clients, and perhaps precisely because they are “augmenting” (or rescripting) history, they do indeed change the client’s present world. But as long as the client leads the way, the changes will be in matters that the client is ready to change.

However, rescripting is sometimes carried further than these rituals. Rescripting sometimes involves re-writing the past-life story itself. If the past-life story turns out unhappily, why not re-write it to have a happy ending? Why not change events so that the lovers live happily ever after, the volcano does not erupt, the past-life character does not kill or be killed by X? I come back again to the client: if the client spontaneously says that he or she wants to change events, then they should do it. (I have never known a client to say this spontaneously, but just suppose). Perhaps that is their way to healing, or perhaps they are not yet ready to confront the trauma of the events in the past life. But if the client is truly leading the way, then I believe the therapist should follow.

But what if the therapist decides that for a client’s own good a past-life event needs to be changed, or the therapist decides the best way to change it? This is when I think we get into trouble with rescripting. If the therapist takes control in this way, is the message to the client that their past-life story is not good enough and must be improved? This seems very disempowering of the client. This becomes more true if the therapist takes the lead in the process and decides how the story should be changed. This definitely puts the client in a one-down position, making the therapist into an “expert” who knows better than the client does what is needed for his or her own healing. I believe this moves outside the bounds of ethical practice and deprives the client of the deeper understanding that will lead to healing.

One of our troubles with rescripting may be effectiveness. There has never been a study on the effectiveness of rescripting methods of any kind, so we don’t know whether therapist-led change (or client-led, either) is even effective in helping clients. We do know from client feedback that the interlife rituals mentioned above seem to be helpful. But is more extensive rescripting, re-writing of the story itself by either therapist or client, really effective as a therapy technique? Perhaps it is. Or perhaps during the therapy session it has the power of a vivid dream, but then it has the after effects, too. In other words, perhaps the changes from rescripting seem powerful at the time but are soon lost and forgotten afterward, like a dream, and the “real” past-life story remains as the one remembered.

In the early 1980s I carried out a little pilot study with only two people in which I asked them (in individual sessions) to make minor changes in their past-life stories. I asked them to change the colors of things, or the kind of food they were eating, or the number of people in a group. Both of them found it difficult to make the changes but they did manage to make most of them, but as one commented, if she looked away and then back again the item had “snapped back” to its prior state. This makes me wonder how long any rescripting changes to the story of a past life would last, especially if the changes were in major events, not the minor changes I asked for. However, I (the therapist) was the one asking for the changes, and they were not suggested by the two people in my study. If they had been, perhaps the changes would not have “snapped back” as they did.

But clients rarely (if ever) spontaneously ask for changes in a past-life story to be made. They seem well able to draw their own lessons and meanings from the past-life events as they present themselves, and do not ask for things to be changed. This being the case, I believe that the limits of effective and ethical rescripting are in the interlife rituals so commonly used with good effect, and then only as client-led techniques. Going beyond those limits goes too far.

Finally, I would caution that because we do not really know whether past-life stories are “real” or not, we should go slowly when we try to change history. In Asimov’s story, one very small drop of water made some very big differences. We may be well-advised to keep The Federations’ First Law of Time Travel in mind.