The haunting tones of the opening credits captivated me as a fleeting reference to a big screen masterpiece with very similar themes flashed in my head. The Man in the High Castle’s producers chose to use an eerie, breathy rendition of Edelweiss to remind us, the viewers, of another story where the Third Reich lost a war. However, not so in this series. Set in 1962, The Man in the High Castle asks the question (and poses a highly credible answer to the same): What if America and its allies lost the Second World War?
Imagine a division of the United States into west coast Japanese Pacific States and east coast Nazi-controlled Greater Third Reich. Hitler is still in command. Americans have lost most of their freedoms. The dreaded thought of another H-bomb being dropped (in addition to the war-ending wipe out of Washington D.C.) hangs over everyone’s head. What’s more is that the first adults who have known nothing but occupation are now making their way into the world.
The metaphor isn’t lost on me; many have asked the same kind of questions in recent days.
But this has always been a very present theme in almost every story, movie, play and piece of music since very early days.
What if? sparks the imagination of a young Dorothy caught in a dull black-and-white rural Kansas farm, and she wakes up in Oz.
What if? drives a chained Nelson Mandela to dream of a better South Africa.
What if? is the motivating force of every great scientist who has ever tirelessly flogged themselves to find a way, a cure, an answer or a technological revolution.
Every dream of ours is a What if? question.
Every hope for the future is a What if? question.
Every prayer we pray is a What if? question.
More often than not, however, is the other–negative–side of the question: “What if that event hadn’t happened?” “What if I didn’t say that?” “What if I did this instead of that?”
We long for someone to invent a magical DeLorean time machine to take us back in time so we can undo our past mistakes.
There are so many self-help books on specifically this topic that they could fill up any town library. TV Shows abound. YouTube is filled with a well-rehearsed crowd of people offering their wisdom on this topic.
But whatever well-meaning help is given, the past remains untouchable. It is gone. That moment will never come again. No hi-tech time-travelling car will appear to whisk me off to where I can reset my clock or rewrite a few days of upheaval.
I find, though, in an often-used, simple toss-away line, the most helpful words I can find to get me through any past-pity-party: “When you knew better, you did better.” We all have mistakes we would rather change to moments of glory. Given the same circumstances, with the same understanding–not having the advantage of hindsight–we would most likely do the same things, given the chance.
The same holds true for those who offended us, abused us, or shamed us. While some choose willingly to continue a life of hurting others, most folks, when they come to a higher level of thinking or a greater understanding of our inter-relatedness and the forces that work within us, tend to do better than in their previous ignorant state. There are times when I too come to a higher level of thinking, when I see from a new perspective that something I had suffered at the hands of another was done to me not out of malice, but out of whatever understanding that person possessed at the time. This doesn’t lessen the pain of what happened, but it does help with the healing.
Sometimes it takes a trained therapist or a qualified professional to help us work through past traumas. By all means, make that appointment, talk things through, seek help in dealing with your personal pain and in building your own emotional wellbeing. That call may be the most important first step you can ever take.*
It is, I believe, a necessary exercise to ask ourselves the What if? questions. Often this refocuses our perspective and enlightens us to ways we can avoid repeating the same mistakes–or repeating, as a nation, the great mistakes of history.
In the case of The Man in the High Castle, we weave our prayers through the story line–prayers that we may never experience such diabolical authoritarianism in our lifetime, nor leave such a legacy to our children and their children. Sometimes we need stories like this to help us strengthen our resolve to be the kind of people who have embedded in them the noble character traits of those who stand up for what is true, right and just.
Our imagination is an amazing (and undervalued) tool, but we must now, more than ever before, harness its power to tell better stories, dream bigger dreams and have the courage to let these transform us into the better people we need to be.
* In Australia, Lifeline Crisis Support 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue http://www.beyondblue.org.au are both great places to start. There are also numerous qualified counsellors, psychologists and mental health professionals available. Check your local Yellow Pages for listings of those who are members of and recommended by registered professional associations.