I watched “The Butterfly Effect” with my housemates yesterday. From a conventional perspective, it was one of the most poorly written movies I’ve ever watched. For a movie that was made in 2004, the cinematography is very dated and falls squarely in the trademark campiness of the mid-90s. However, I enjoyed it much more than I imagined I would, certainly much more than I could possibly have just a few years ago.

The story is about Ashton Kutcher’s character who has the power to go back in time to specific parts of his childhood in order to change the present circumstances of him and the people he cares about. It carries with it the usual continuity plot holes that time-traveling stories seldom manage to resolve. Eventually, like every time-traveling protagonist, he realizes that attempting to right the wrongs of the past only precipitated more unintended and unfortunate consequences. The movie then proceeded to, in dramatic heavy-handed fashion, drive home its core message of lost and regret. Though its execution is clumsy even by the standards of its time, I appreciated its raw unpolished intent. I suspect a similar feeling is shared by the IMDB users who collectively left it with a solidly above-average rating even accounting for grade inflation.

On a more personal level, I think my particular affection for the film stems from an sense of empathy with Kutcher’s character. In his case, each alteration to the past drastically reinvented his present, leaving him disoriented as a stranger in a new world. I too often get the feeling that my life is a series of discontinuities in which I occasionally lose track of the trail that led me to a particular moment. When I feel that way, I seek out constants. For the protagonist of the movie, his journals and his love for his childhood sweetheart are his only constants. You might call them totems for they are the markers along his path in time.

In the movie “Inception”, totems are familiar objects with which the characters can determine if they are still trapped in a dream. While on a spiritual journey in the Nevada desert recently, I came to learn that totems are also brightly colored objects that ravers in an augmented state of mind can use to reorient themselves in unfamiliar environments. The very moment I came to truly appreciate the utility of totems on that occasion put many things into perspectives anew. For one thing, it brought a whole new alternative light to the colorful and exaggerated tribal totems of the Native Americans and the Pacific Islanders. (Those people were probably tripping balls on a very regular basis.) But beyond that, I saw very clearly some of the totems in my life.

On that occasion, I found myself lost and wandering alone in the desert. What kept me going was the thought of my friends who I was convinced brought me to that moment. I trusted them. In that moment of great tribulation, I questioned my entire existence and my self worth and yet miraculously I was able to hold onto my totems and reality. Therefore, I knew, as I examined my own thoughts, that everything was going to be alright.

I am thankful for my totems. Someday, I hope to be worthy of doing the same for someone else.

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