What Interstellar Taught Me About Being a Father
What is missing from the future you imagine?
I don’t consider myself a fan of Matthew McConaughey. Maybe I’m a bit insecure of men who are far more rich and handsome than me and want no part of making them richer. It’s possible.
Given my aversion to McConaughey, it came as a surprise when I was sucked into the trailer for Interstellar. The movie didn’t disappoint on the big screen; close calls with black holes, waterworld alien planets, and an earth saving mission, even John Lithgow. It was an epic.
I don’t typically watch movies multiple times. Sure, if I stumble across the Goonies or Shawshank Redemption my night will be spoken for, but typically, I’m one-and-done. I bought Interstellar on DVD. Maybe that helped McConaughey buy another Mai Tai but that was a risk I was willing to take.
When watching at home, it felt like a completely different movie. Sure, it was less immersive on the smaller screen but that wasn’t it. I saw a different narrative which affected me in an entirely new way.
The plot centers around a single father of two and retired pilot Cooper (McConaughey). Earth is slowly dying. Coop is recruited to lead a mission to discover habitable planets outside our solar system.
There’s a big problem for Coop though, interstellar travel takes a long time and he has two kids under the age of 16. Then there’s a bigger problem, because of the theory of relativity (thanks, Einstein), he knows that his time away will be longer on earth by a factor of at least five. After returning from a five year mission, he and his 11-year-old daughter Murph could be the same age.
Going on the mission would all but assure that he would miss 25+ birthdays, graduations , sporting events, life-defining conversations, maybe weddings and the birth of grandchild or two.
He must also consider the darker possibility that one or both of his children might not be alive when he returned. Of course, he might not make it back himself.
Cooper must choose between staying with his children on a dying planet, or leaving his children to dutifully lead a mission to secure the future of the planet.
That’s some decision.
Coop decides to go. His daughter is devastated. I felt their pain. Her tears cut through me the second time I saw the film. There was nothing more in her life at that moment than just wanting her Dad.
On the surface it seems absurd to think that this is a decision you will ever face as a father. I believe many of us have already faced this decision.
We may not be called on to save the world, but we often choose to be more present in what we perceive our mission to be. For men with young families, this mission is often securing the financial future of our planet; our family. Sacrificing today, for a better tomorrow.
Left to its own devices, this mission consumes us. Our brain imagines a future so wonderful, we conclude that getting there won’t be easy. We must obsess over execution of this mission. We may be physically present with our family, but our mind may as well be with McConaughey millions of light years away.
The question is why do many of us take this mission? Daniel Gilbert in his book, Stumbling on Happiness, offers some insight. He argues that humans often suffer from illusions of foresight. According to Gilbert, our brains are very good at imagining the future, the problem is we are very bad at getting it right.
Most problematic, Gilbert points out, is not what is included in our brain’s movie reel of the future (although it is often wrong), it is what is excluded. The devil is in the details, and our brain leaves them out while presenting a convincing case that our vision of the future is complete.
So, back to our question. Why do we go?
I founded my startup in 2012. I rationalized sacrificing 5, 10, 20 years of my life to reach a day of financial security and freedom. I imagined a future filled with Belgian beer tours, Jeep Jamborees, and triathlons (hopefully not in that order).
Like Cooper, I was imagining a future of fulfillment, pride, and comfort. A future where I would feel peace, and happiness. Enough of a payoff to accept the temporary sacrifice as means to that end.
What did I fail to imagine about but my future? The end product of the burden of my sacrifice on my daughters. A future filled with my grown children telling their friends, spouses, and therapists about their father. A father so focused on the future, he let the present slip away.
What about Coop? What was his imagination telling him about his future? I’m sure he was thinking about the gratification he’d feel after saving the world, perhaps a parade in his honor and maybe even an appearance on the Tonight Show.
What was his brain leaving out? Well, what if his children were incapable of forgiving him for leaving them at a time in their lives when they needed him the most? He may have just saved the world, but now he might be faced with dying alone.
Would it still have been worth his sacrifice? Would he still be happy with his decision to go on the mission?
Thankfully, the consequences of our decisions are not accelerated by relativity like Cooper’s. We see the present much more clearly than we see the future and unlike Coop, we have the ability to change its course on a dime.
Choosing presence, we can build a sturdier wall than the patched filled walls our brains present as our future.