I was born on Thanksgiving Day, 1963, less than a week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The ruthless killing of the president is one of the darkest days in our country’s history, and it ushered in a decade of social turmoil, escalating war overseas, and the beginnings of a divisive politics that continues to plague us.
In his 2012 novel “11/22/63”, author Stephen King asks a provocative question: “If you could go back in time and prevent the JFK murder, would you do it?” He tells the story of a modern-day schoolteacher, Jake Epping, who finds a time portal that allows him to travel to Dallas in the years leading up to the assassination, and the detailed plan Jake works out to kill Lee Harvey Oswald before Oswald can take aim at Kennedy on that fateful day.
The novel is compelling, and although it provides one possible answer to the “would you do it” question, it raises many more. If we were able to travel to the past, would our tampering with events create a whole new set of problems that we hadn’t anticipated? And how are we so sure that eliminating one tragedy doesn’t cause many other tragedies that are even worse? The character of Jake, traveling from the 21st century, has an awesome power – the godlike power to know how the future unfolds – and we see the wide range of problems that it causes a normal man to be entrusted with such knowledge.
“11/22/63” is one of my favorite King novels, spinning a story out of an age-old parlor game question. And in reading the book, I’ve been challenged to look at things that I can change for the better in the here and now. While we don’t have foreknowledge of disasters and murders, all of us are able to see that bad things in the present can cause greater problems down the road. The child that is encouraged now will likely have confidence later. The spouse that is loved today will be less likely to be depressed and isolated in future years. The relationship you cultivate today is the tight bond that lasts years and decades. And so on.
Can we be change agents in our own limited sphere today? Can we literally change the course of history, for good, for everyone we come in contact with? That’s an incredible power. Let’s use it wisely.