Time Loop Perfection

I have several friends who love time loop movies (in addition to saving video games and trying things until successful). The scheme goes like this: a character or characters get stuck re-living the same day (or game sequence) over and over again. Bill Murray, Andy Samberg/Cristin Milioti, and Tom Cruise (and Morty) have each had lots of opportunities to get things just right, to become perfect and through perfection find salvation. Everyone has a time loop orientation, a time horizon in which perfection is sought. The personal perfection time horizon (PPTH) represents the type of time loop movie any given person would choose. For example, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character has an eight minute time horizon in Source Code, the time in which perfection must be iteratively achieved. Movies construct tropes to force a PPTH onto the protagonist(s) but in life each person chooses a PPTH. If your primary PPTH is eight minutes, you are meticulous about the little things. The toilet lid must be such a way, each shower has to happen in a prescribed way, and chaos in every brief routine is unacceptable. Making a cup of coffee is a prescribed process that you’ve perfected. Shaking hands must go a certain way. You’ve replayed a conversation with a barista where you felt like you inadvertently said something rude a hundred times to make sure you never put yourself in such a position again. Groundhog Day represents a somewhat longer PPTH (though again selected by the “universe” rather than by Bill Murray). Where brief PPTHs are focused on perfection in action, one day to one week PPTHs are focused on perfection of self. One seeks to overcome one’s demons so that one can love fully or live presently when one’s PPTH is measured in days. This is the PPTH of the late teens and twenties (and for urbanites who still might have children, extends to the early/mid thirties). The perfect date, the perfect weekend, the perfect New Years’ Eve. A PPTH that appears deeply impatient to those who have a perfection time horizon that is measured in years, but is not as harshly angry goldfishy as the ten minute PPTH. One day vs. ten minute PPTHs represent the difference between watching a movie from the mid-20th century vs. a modern movie; shorter shots hold the attention (learn about the financial crisis in spite of disinterest in the topic in The Big Short), while longer shots leave more room for lengthier narrative focus (take a long bath with The Maltese Falcon). There’s a TikTok vs. YouTube analogue here, the ten minute vs. ten second attention meal/snack, with similar magnitudes of time spent on perfecting in each medium (YouTubers are basically full time video editors, while TikTokkers throw huge volumes of content against the screen until the algorithm approves).

Far longer PPTHs are also a part of the human civilization project. Religions and political ideologies take far longer views. The economics of utility consider the human lifespan as the perfectible unit, with different time scales depending on the specific economic fiction one might believe. If one is among the liberal / laissez-faire / low taxes economic faithful, a full human lifetime is the time horizon. Adam-Smith-God forbid the government provide anything to someone who didn’t work for it and earn it, because that person would become a lifelong societal leach, sucking the blood out of the good protestant hard-working homeowners who totally earned it. Socialists, communists, and anarchists have perfection time horizons that reflect the types of pain they wish to remedy and evils they wish to uproot. Socialists want to alleviate relatively near-term pain, with a year-long PPTH (approx.) – give the people money and healthcare! Communists have a longer time horizon, and it really depends on the particular implementation/ideology. The Soviets had a 5-year plan for everything. The Chinese are thinking on a 50-100 year time scale in contemporary times. Marxists have a 500-1000 year historical and future view of the struggle with capital. Anarchists have both a human lifetime view and a total human civilization PPTH (“give me the maximum freedom over my lifetime” + “power of any kind is insidious and terrible and has been around since we starting raising wheat“). And then there are religions. Many of them necessarily have an explanation for perfection on every time horizon; sins / absolution (momentary PPTH) along with heaven / genesis (infinite PPTH). Nietzsche’s angsty response to a hard core Christian upbringing was to find an new story for infinite time horizons that felt more free and more accepting (yet still infinitely heroic). People have PPTH methods, habits, and subconscious reactions to each time horizon, many of which are language-driven and context-based, but many people have a ranking of their PPTHs. 5-minute focus (Olympic weight lifters) vs. infinite time focus (physicists).

Is perfection orientation necessary? Many claim that the fear-expectations-perfection cocktail is part of “human nature”. People will be greedy, are unwilling to see outside of their heaven-bound worldview, and will form tribes that fear then fight other tribes. If the perfection project is inseparable from the human brain, these people must be onto something, and the systems we’ve built to punish, incentivize, and generally enforce productivity/progress are necessary. However, as I’ve observed with my senses and surveyed written apprehensions of the human condition (scientific and otherwise), I’ve come to believe that the perfection project is optional, on any time horizon. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future recently riled me up enough to write an angsty piece that implied that driving cars might be equivalent to random semi-mass-murder. Climate change and unfair power structures seem harmful to human flourishing, but the fear and insecurity that led me to write so aggressively represent the convergence of several PPTHs into “inarguable” prescriptions. Perfection is, by definition, impossible. Seeking impossible things is, by definition, absurd. Maybe Camus is right, and all we can do is seek to become one with the absurd. I’ve recently become acquainted with another option, however. Aristotle and the word “the” helped created the concept of things (as well as their separation from each other), and land ownership, debt (and bullshit jobs), power, data, and religion weaved the fiction that a perfect relationship with things could lead to salvation from the awful imperfections that lead to hell, poverty, and madness/unreason. But what if imperfection isn’t a problem? What if humans (even just some humans) let go of the perfect/imperfect rock/hard place and stopped grinding against everything we can find to grind?

The world might feel a little more like the world Zhuangzi describes in The Inner Chapters. Zhuangzi doesn’t live in a time loop of any length. The world he describes is one in which things are not separate from each other and possessing neither items or actions can lead to perfect knowledge or living. Zhuangzi’s parables indicate that perfection is both absurd and unreasonable, while both absurdity and unreason are natural and guaranteed. The original Daoist (who would have rejected the classification) prescribes a strange combination of acceptance and engagement that lead to a very specific type of spontaneous life. His assertion that many of the PPTHs that infect people are inseparably baked into language and social structures rings true – in a way we are stuck in time loop movies of varying time horizons when we’re at work, having conversations, and pondering life (and certainly while making a cup of coffee). There may be no way to perfectly escape, as perfection in time-disengagement is no more possible than perfection in knowledge, love or society. At the very least though, we can take lengthy breaks from perfection projects to wallow in wonderful, muddy timelessness.