When I decided to name my column “Back to the Future,” I was not thinking of the first installment in the trilogy, wherein Marty McFly must go back to the time of his father’s youth to change his own present, nor the second, wherein Marty McFly must go to both one version of his future and an alternate present. I was thinking of the last moment of the last movie in the trilogy.
Marty and his girlfriend meet Doc Brown and his wife (an insufferable woman from the wild, wild west) as the latter two pass through on a time-traveling train (like you do). Marty’s girlfriend (who is, for some reason, played by a different actress after the first movie, but I digress) notes that she took a piece of paper with writing on it from the future, and that that paper has since turned blank. “I brought this back from the future and now it’s erased!” she yells at a departing Doc. “Of course it’s erased!” he replies. And, when asked what he means, Doc Brown simply states, “It means your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future’s whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you!”
One supposes that Marty and his girlfriend, whoever she’s played by, go on to do just that. And that they do so because they know that they are the only ones who stand between them and their futures. The only ones who get to decide what sort of future it’s going to be.
I’ve thought and written a great deal this year about the sort of expectations that we have for our futures. About interviews and career fairs, about graduate programs and marriage. About the different words with which we can author our own futures. But those expectations, written about or otherwise, do not a future make.
This isn’t to say that the future isn’t partially determined by the past and present, because it is. Surely being a student at Columbia enables one to have a certain sort of future (though it entitles no one to that). Surely the choices that we have already made, or are currently making, will influence the choices we are one day able to make. Surely “Back to the Future” part III could not have happened without “Back to the Future” parts I and II (for many reasons, but far be it from me to spoil a film, even one that came out 30 years ago that, quite frankly, you really should have watched by this point in your life).
But it is to suggest that we—as members of this generation, as students at this school, as people growing up in this time and space—are told that the future will say certain (often contradictory) things about us. That we’re the leaders of tomorrow, or that we’re doomed to be unemployed till we’re 35, or that we’re an irrevocably lost generation, or that we’re going to ruin, run, or ruin and then run the world. But the truth, I think, is that any page from any of our futures would be as blank as the one Marty’s girlfriend shows to Doc Brown. And I say this as someone who has written, by my count, 13 columns about facing the future.
What is there to face? What is there for you, or me, or anyone to read? We’ll write our futures when we get there.
Thanks for reading, Columbia.
I’m off to make it a good one.
Emily Tamkin is a Columbia College senior majoring in Russian literature and culture. She is the general manager of the Columbia Political Union, vice chair of the Senior Fund, literary criticism editor of The Birch, and a former Spectator editorial page editor. Back to the Future runs alternate Wednesdays.