Time is relentless. Rational people understand that you cannot turn back the clock. Sometimes, however, there are moments in your youth when you summon up the strength or courage to do things that actually help you better navigate the future. Which is why I look back fondly at my foot race with John King in the seventh grade.
My neighborhood had changed because low income housing was built nearby and now my school’s population changed. Instead of attending a school with affluent, college-bound kids, I attended a school with many low achievers and discipline problems. Like many kids, I rose to the level of expectation of my teachers, who now viewed me as mediocre, instead of the academic star I was in my mother’s eyes. My self-esteem plummeted, even in gym class where I was overshadowed by some genuinely gifted athletes.
So it was a special day for me when I was pitted against John King, one of the tough and cool kids who smoked cigarettes in junior high school, in a 220 yard dash in my PE class. I was nervous, but on that day I was very fast and won the race. Winning did remarkable things for my self-esteem. I was who I was, but now I felt I could seriously compete against anyone in my school. I might not win every race, but I thought of myself as a potential winner and it did marvelous things for my ego.
That kind of personality transformation is at the heart of Back to the Future, an escapist fantasy of time travel, in which Marty McFly travels 30 years into the past and orchestrates the encounter in which his parents, George, a shy, bookish teenager, and Lorraine, meet and fall in love. Marty discovers that if his father becomes more assertive, Marty can alter his destiny and that of his parents as well.
The film opens in the home-laboratory of Dr. Emmett Brown, an eccentric scientist who prides himself on creating inventions, one of which is a time machine whose exterior is a DeLorean automobile. Through a series of improbable events, Marty jumps in the car to flee Libyan assassins and accidently is catapulted back to 1955, and that is when the adventure begins.
Marty meets his parents before they got married and realizes that unless he intervenes in their lives, they will not marry and he never will be born. The problem is that George McFly, Marty’s dad, is extremely introverted and devoid of self-esteem. He simply lacks the courage to ask Lorraine, Marty’s future mother, out on a date. Moreover, he is subject to the constant bullying of Biff Tannen, who often threatens him with violence. To complicate things, Marty’s mother as a teenager is infatuated with Marty rather than her destined husband, George. How everything is sorted out and how George and Lorraine finally meet and fall in love is the narrative arc of the film. In the end, we see that decisions and actions made as a youth can have profound implications for the rest of one’s life, especially in the life of George McFly.
Time is an eternal value in Jewish tradition, encapsulated in the maxim of The Ethics of the Fathers: “if not now, then when?” Everyday should be filled with achievement and spiritual growth, not procrastination. Furthermore, the Sages say that one should think that each day is potentially one’s last day. Therefore, one should think about how to conduct oneself every day of one’s life. Back to the Future reminds us that how we act today can influence our tomorrows. Therefore, let us be wise and make the decisions today that will enable us to have a successful future.