Why Do We Pretend?
Alison Gopnik reveals the core of human nature- our unique ability to use our brain for imagination, something she refers to as counterfactuals. In her essay, “Possible Worlds: Why Do Children Pretend?” Gopnik discusses “the woulda-coulda-shouldas of life”(163) in great detail expanding on her point “ human beings don’t live in the real world”(163). Her argument is that our lives are consumed by the alternate realities that run simultaneously with the real world events. Gregory Orr claims to have lived these realities as evident in his memoir “Return to Hayneville”, where Orr revisits his participation in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. A memoir- by definition- is an authors way of revisiting their past experiences and summarizing their achievements and also analyzing what would have changed if they had done something different. The theories of causations affected the decisions and actions of Orr and others who played a vital role in the way that Orr revisits his experiences. Gopnik’s theory of counterfactuals illuminates the darker side of Orr’s memoir, his flurry of emotions which explains how and why we pretend. Orr maintains that his work in the 1960 defines the way he lived the rest of his life, but Gopnik explains why “people are most unhappy when a desirable outcome seems to be just out of reach..”(165) by stating that “the evolutionary answer is that counterfactuals let us change the future…”(165). As humans we use counterfactual thinking almost automatically and tend to push the world in different directions, changing the course of history as we go. Gopnik credits counterfactual thinking to evolutionary success.
Perhaps Orr’s regret is that he lacked the savoir-faire for this exact situation, and his counterfactuals see to it that he feels heightened emotions for the pain that he endured and caused. Gopnik provides a skeleton outline which is filled with examples from Orr’s experiences with counterfactual thinking Gopnik’s theory proves that Orr’s nostalgia is caused by his remorse for what could have been. When he recounts back to when he was twelve and he accidentally shot his brother, it becomes evident that he still carried the guilt of his actions well into his adult life. Gopnik explains, “ The price we pay for the counterfactuals of the future is the enhanced human emotion [regret, sadness, remorse, hate ] we feel for the past” (Gopnik 166). Perhaps Orr felt that in order to move on from his mistake he would have to
“lose [himself] in some worthwhile work” (Orr 217). Thus began his journey that ultimately led to the incident in Hayneville. Orr was kidnapped, beaten and starved, so when the opportunity presented itself he escaped and landed in deeper trouble. Gopnik elaborates on how emotions about the past affect the counterfactuals of the future which is seen in Orr’s experiences. One of Orr’s heightened emotions is guilt, guilt for the role he played in his brother’s death.
This guilt propelled him to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and led him to a march in Mississippi where he first made a connection with the cause, as he watched the faces of the renditions of volunteers who had been found dead. He “longed to be like them, to transcend [his] confusions and the agonies of [his] past and be taken up into some noble simplicity beyond change” (Orr 218). What was he confused about? Gopnik’s theory gives a perfect diagnosis, she says “you can’t escape considering all the possible pasts, all the things that could have gone differently”(Gopnik 166). Orr’s guilt stems from the pain he feels for killing his brother. His entire involvement within the movement is based solely on his desire to move on and redefine himself. Gopnik acknowledges that “being able to consider all the possible futures, is that you can’t escape considering all the possible pasts”(Gopnik 166), and Orr unfortunately was subject to this difficult undertaking when he recounts his story of Hayneville. It becomes evident that Orr holds another type of guilt, guilt for his actions that led to his capture at Hayneville. When he left Jackson he didn’t call the COFO office because “ …[he] was ashamed. [He] was deserting…”(Orr 224). Orr realized later that he could have avoided his predicament had he accepted the fact that his release was not desertion, rather it was an event which was out of his control. When Orr comes to terms with his past, he feels joy “ [joy] at how [his] life went on past this town and blossomed into its possibilities, one of which… was love”(Orr 229). Orr’s memoir focuses on one major aspect of his adventure, his feelings and according to Gopnik’s theory of counterfactual thinking, emotions are the sole cause of nostalgia.
The nostalgia that Orr feels stems from his use of counterfactuals where he asks himself ‘what could have been done differently’. As he describes his first drive to Hayneville, in the dark following his kidnappers, Orr makes a distinct use of counterfactual thinking, “If I tried to make a getaway, their car could easily overtake mine, and they would surely shoot me”(Orr 225). How did he know that these hijackers would pursue him? Orr made perfect use of cognitive thinking, playing out his scenario and experiencing the emotions as they would play out. Gopnik also discusses reconstructing the past, particularly focusing on children, but her ideas relay into describing the actions of not only infants but the human population as a whole. She credits language with giving people the ability to imagine and describe alternate realities. Though Orr was able to communicate at the time of his kidnapping, he was unable to articulate what changes were happening in the way he perceived himself. Only 40 years later as he tells his colleagues of his adventure in Hayneville does he realize the impact this experience had on his life “… To think that the kid I was had come south seeking the dark blessing of death in a noble cause, but had instead been given the far more complex blessing of life”( Orr 229). Gopnik provides a connection to explain how, “You can… imagine what would have happened if you had acted in a certain way… [you] can accurately predict just how these actions will change the world”(Gopnik 172). That is exactly what Orr does, he reflected on the past and made a prediction on how if he had made that one phone call or whether he had turned around on that dark night what changes would have occurred in his life. He feels joy when he walks out of the jail because he acknowledges the “enormity of the gift [he] has been given- a whole life!”(Orr 229). Gopnik’s discussion of counterfactuals serves as a lens through which to review Orr’s memoir and additionally reading Orr’s memoir qualifies Gopnik’s ideas about counterfactual thinking.
Orr’s experiences in Hayneville provide the perfect examples from which Gopnik’s skeleton outline for higher cognitive thinking can be filled. By examining how children think and learn, Gopnik gives us a very fluid sense of time and the relation between past, present and future. When we alter time, we change reality: what was, what is, what could be and what might have been. Orr tells the story of his 1965 imprisonment in Hayneville as a flashback recounting details in pieces. As he tells his story, his use of counterfactual thinking becomes clear and the reader is able to picture with Orr the different realities he lived. Orr demonstrates that up until the point when he stepped into the jail he did not truly appreciate the gift of life that he had been given. Gopnik and Orr, though they use different mediums of explaining, present the same point: That counterfactual thinking creates alternate possibilities and realities.