One of the great virtues of the “Star Trek” enterprise was the optimistic outlook of its creator, Gene Roddenberry. The shows reflected his basic faith that the human endeavor was ultimately worthwhile, and that it was possible for the human race to become more humane and enlightened as it evolved. The future could be better.
This fundamental optmism about the human condition was well-expressed in one particularly memorable episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The episode, titled “Tapestry,” aired during the show’s sixth season in 1993.
It involved the infamous Q, an occasional character with god-like powers who exercised them with Loki-like mischievousness, although he seemed to have a sympathetic heart somewhere deep down. He was played by John de Lancie, the son of a renowned oboist who found the role of his acting career in this annoying yet likable character.
The episode centers around a bar fight waged during the youth of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, in which he came to the aid of a fellow cadet set upon by ugly alien bullies called Nausicaans. In defending his comrade Picard is stabbed in the heart. When his artificial heart is damaged years later, he awakens in what Q tells him is the afterlife – a fate he would not have suffered if he had his original heart.
Q gives Picard the chance to do over the bar brawl and thus avoid death. When thrown back in time, the captain stays out of the fight much to the disgust of his friend. Picard avoids the stabbing, but then finds he lives out his career as a mid-level functionary – a paper-pusher who never rises to the level of captain nor to the respect of his fellow Enterprise crew members.
Appalled by the consequences of playing it safe, Picard asks for yet another shot at the bar. Q gives it to him, Picard gives the Nausicaans what they deserve, and the captain awakes laughing on the operating table – saved physically by Dr. Crusher and morally by Q’s machinations.
Picard’s epiphany: “There are many parts of my youth that I’m not proud of. There were… loose threads – untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I pulled on one of those threads – it’d unravel the tapestry of my life.”
I am not a Trekkie and have never attended a convention outfitted with pointy ears. But I have often recalled this episode in dealing with events from the past. Often I wish I had done things differently, done them better or not done them at all.
This wishing quickly evokes regret, which is a natural but mostly useless emotion – a longing to change things that cannot be changed. This kind of wishing fits the Buddhist definition of suffering. It is a desire that cannot be fulfilled, a pain that cannot be removed.
The little lesson that Roddenberry offers in this episode is this: You probably did the best you could with what you knew at the time. If you could go back and change it, the outcome of that event would be different but you might not like the ensuing consequences.
In other words, don’t waste your time wishing you could redo or undo things you regret. Learn from them, yes, but stop flagellating yourself. In this case the obnoxiously prevalent catch-phrase really does pertain: It is what it is. Accept that with a measure of peace, or burn up untold hours of sleep regretting it.
Does this mean everything happens for a reason, or God has a plan for our lives? Hmm. I don’t think “Star Trek” can help with those answers. Roddenberry was reportedly an agnostic whose ashes were buried in outer space. I assume they are still out there, going where no man has gone before.