Peter was the head of a small but high quality non-profit that nobody had ever heard of, and was the first human to discover that time travel was possible. It wasn’t that he’d discovered it himself. He was far too sensible to go for such ideas. No, the way he found out was somebody came back to visit him.
He had just woken up and was groggily opening up his emails when a skinny Indian man with a huge moustache he’d never met before barged into his bedroom and slammed his laptop shut.
“Don’t open that!”, the man cried.
Peter, who was not wearing pants and was only half awake, punched the man in the face. Or at least he tried. The man moved surprisingly fast out of the way.
“Oh yes, I forgot,” he said. “You told me that your instincts were fight, not flight.”
“Who are you?” exclaimed Peter, feeling bewildered and more than a little frightened. This man looked friendly, but he had just broken into his house and prevented him from reading his emails, two unforgivable crimes.
“Why, I’m your protégé from the future. Name’s Kumar. Krishna Kumar.” He held out his hand. Peter instinctively shook it. “You told me to tell you some things that would unambiguously confirm that, so you secretly like watching 4chan goo porn, and also, the winning lottery ticket that will be announced in 2 minutes is 2564 65443 7754. You can pull it up on your phone now. But whatever you do, don’t look at your email. I know that that will drive you mad, but is it worth the risk of going against what Future You knows is the right call if you can’t just wait 2 minutes to check your email? It’s the utilitarian thing to do.”
Peter felt as if he’d just been told that his mom had died. Not checking emails for 2 minutes? What cruelty. If this was a practical joke, it had gone too far. Far too far.
So, he pulled out his phone and found out what the winning lottery number was. Sure enough, it was what Kumar had said. Kumar grinned at him.
“Fine, tell me what’s going on? Why can’t I check my emails?”
Kumar’s hitherto unstoppable grin fell. “It’s the thing that causes you to give up.”
Peter’s curiosity burned. “What is it?”
“I can’t tell you. Not until I show you your two futures. One is the future I’m from, and the other is the future that I’m trying to prevent. Come with me.” He held out his hand again and Peter took it.
He felt a lurch and suddenly he was in a mud hut. It could have been anywhere in India. A mother was just at the end of birth, screaming. Then the baby was out. The midwife handed her her newborn. It was ugly as fuck but you could tell as the woman cradled it in her arms that she had never felt such happiness and love before.
Kumar looked like he had multiple emotions fighting across his face. Softness but also sadness “That little baby’s name is Sweta. She’s the first who will die if you ever give up.”
The father just came into the hut and his face lit up when he saw the child and mother. He came over to sit next to them, holding his hands out for his first born.
Peter was confused, “I’m not giving up,” he said. “Why would you say that?”
“Just look” said Kumar. Peter did and he couldn’t imagine giving up on that child. Kumar put a hand on his shoulder and there was another jolt, but this time they were still in the same hut, but later in the season. It was monsooning outside and the floor was half covered in mud. The baby was much more plump and cute now, if it weren’t for the angry red spots all over her body. She wasn’t screaming, but that seemed to make it worse. The mother, so happy previously, looked like the life had been sucked out of her.
Kumar looked at Peter then said “I won’t make you see her die. But I will show you her from my future. The one Future You sent me from.”
Another lurch. This time he’s in a hospital waiting room. It looks to be developed world, but all of the signs are in Hindi, so he must be in India. A nurse walks by and Kumar nudges him “That’s her. She becomes a nurse, an outstanding one.”
“I don’t understand. I know this already. I know. Why are you showing me this?”
“Because you told me that sometimes you forget. Sometimes you forget what’s going on, and all you see is spreadsheet and bureaucracy. Sometimes you need to see again what you’re doing it for. But that’s just one example, and you told me you’re not an anecdotes guy. So I’m going to show you some stats.” Peter perked up. “But I’m going to show you the faces behind the stats.”
Peter didn’t know how long the Nights from Christmas Past session lasted. It could have been days, it could have been weeks. All he knew was it was overwhelming and it was heartbreaking and heartwarming and crushing and awe inspiring. So many lives. A single father raising a child after the woman passed away in childbirth, only to have his son get physically handicapped and unable to work or get married or support him old age. The man having to work two jobs in a mine and swimming in filth to support the child, only to have him die at the age of 12. A child who, had he lived, would have moved to Canada and sent remittances to his entire family, bringing an entire family out of poverty. A woman who passed away at birth who was sweet and caring. Who would have changed the societal expectations of women in her village as well been the emotional bedrock of her family.
The hundreds of thousands of heartbreaks, the beautiful and full lives.
And that wasn’t all. He started to see animals too. Animals going through immense and unbearable suffering, or living happy lives on a sanctuary. Bugs dying agonizing deaths.
So much, that when Kumar stopped, Peter just sat on the floor and put his head in his hands and cried. He cried for joy for their happiness and sadness for the immensity of so much sadness.
“Why? Why did you show me this? You said you’d tell me after it’s over. Is it over?”
“Almost. That was just a representative sample, it wasn’t all. But no. There’s one last thing.” Peter couldn’t imagine handling anything more.
Suddenly they were back in his room, which seemed unbearably opulent to him now after being in so many huts, so much squalor.
He opened it.
It was an email from the IRS.
He didn’t need to read the whole thing to know what Kumar was going to say “This is the day you lose your charity status because you used black font instead of charcoal grey font.”
“In my future, a protégé from a different timeline came and showed you what I showed you. You kept going. Those are all the lives you change. The suffering you prevent. The other, well, it’s where you give up. To be fair, you’re happy in both realities, but-”
“You don’t have to say anything more,” Peter said. “You know what happens.”
Kumar smiled. It wasn’t the goofy grin from before. Seeing that much suffering makes it hard for that. But it was an authentic smile, a deep smile. One that comes from seeing suffering and then seeing great sacrifice.
“What if I tell you that you don’t get charity status for 5 years. That you-”
“It doesn’t matter,” Peter said. And he knew it, deep in his core. “It doesn’t matter. They matter.”
And Kumar smiled and disappeared. But not before he whispered one last thing “Also, the winning lottery ticket number for tomorrow is 4687 5890 3939. Because future you isn’t an idiot. I also recommend working on in vitro shrimp meat. Trust me. Or rather, trust future you.”
Written when I was running a vaccine charity in India and was feeling discouraged because of all the random bureaucracy.
If you liked this, you might also enjoy:
- The Parable of the Boy Who Cried 5% Chance of Wolf
- Four reasons I find AI safety emotionally compelling
- The most important lesson I learned after ten years in EA
- My personal blog, which has a mix of EA and totally not EA posts
Originally posted on my Twitter.