I went to a Halloween party at someone’s house, but I didn’t really know anyone there. A friend who couldn't go himself had told me about it that afternoon, and I scribbled the address down on a slip of paper since I didn't have any other plans. I was wearing a green mask of a goblin or something, largely because I couldn’t think of anything else to dress up as, and the mask was available. I was pretty much just standing near the front door and trying to drink some spiked punch through the mask, watching everyone else. I had been there for only about a half hour, but I hadn’t met anyone. I’m kind of quiet, it’s hard for me to socialize. The front door was wide open, and people were coming and going freely. I was thinking of leaving myself.
Anyway, a guy walked in the front door, looked around, and then saw me. He came up to me and said, “I think this is for you,” and held out an envelope. I was surprised, and asked him, “What is it?” He just said, “I don’t know, but it’s for you. Here.” With the last word, he pressed the envelope into my hand, and then turned around and walked back out the door.
The envelope was blank, and it wasn’t sealed. There were several pages inside, and I took them out to read. It was handwritten, although I didn’t recognize it as the handwriting of anyone I knew. Whoever wrote it was a lefty apparently. The first page started like this:
Dear Marwan,And then it described something I did when I was 15, and have never been able to forgive myself for. I’m not going to tell you what it was. But to read a description of your own actions, actions which you’ve never told anyone else about, and which you have done everything to divorce yourself from, is a little unnerving. I couldn’t imagine who wrote this letter, because as far as I knew, nobody knew about that event.
Please follow the instructions in this letter. I know you’re feeling a little uncomfortable by the fact that I know you’re name. I am afraid I have to make you even more uncomfortable. Remember the time...
OK. So this is apparently some bizarre form of blackmail. I had stopped reading the letter as all this sank in, and as I dropped my eyes back down to continue reading I saw that my hands were trembling. The description of what I had done had brought me to the back of the first page.
I know you’re thinking this sounds like blackmail. It is not. I am not going to tell anyone else about what you did. Ever. No matter what. I love you, and I would never do that. The reason I described this event to you is just to communicate two things to you. First, this is not some random letter to some random person. It is for you Marwan. Second, you can trust me. Even if you burn this letter right now, I will not tell anyone what you did. But I am asking you to trust me, and to follow my instructions. It’s important.I didn’t know then and I don’t know now what an appropriate response to this might be. I don’t know what you would have done, or what I should have done. But I can tell you what I did. I decided to follow the instructions. Perhaps this was because I was so unsettled by what it said.
So I looked down to the next paragraph, and continued reading.
Leave the party. Just walk out of the door to the sidewalk, turn right, and walk three blocks. Then turn right on Stiller Avenue. Don’t look at the next page to read the next set of instructions until you’ve turned right on Stiller.This was frustrating. I had been assuming (for the last, what, ten seconds?) that I would read the entire letter, and then follow the instructions. But it wanted to deploy me blind. But, as I said, I had made up my mind to follow the instructions. So I took off my mask and threw it on a pile of coats that was nearby (that thing was really uncomfortable), casually walked out the door, to the sidewalk, turned right, and began walking. The party was on the other side of campus from where I lived, so I didn’t know the neighborhood very well.
When I had walked three blocks, I got to a street, and tried to find a sign to identify it. Sure enough, “Stiller Ave.” So I turned right and continued walking, and then looked at the next page.
All right. Just keep on this street for a while. Turn this page over when you hear the dog barking.Very strange. I walked for about two and a half more blocks, when I heard a dog bark in one of the houses I was passing. So I turned the second sheet of paper over.
TURN RIGHT NOW.Immediately, without thinking about it, I turned right and took a couple of steps. Then I stopped. I was in the middle of the block, how could I turn right? I would have to walk through someone’s yard. And besides, how could someone writing a letter know that I should turn right at the particular moment when I was reading it? How could they have known when a dog would bark? Well, maybe they knew the neighborhood, and knew that the dog at that house barks whenever someone passes by. Maybe.
Then I looked up, and saw that there was actually a little worn path making its way between houses. I don’t know whether it would be trespassing, but it looked like I could walk between the houses to get to the street behind them. I started walking (the dog was still barking, since one of the houses I was walking between was his) and looked down at the letter to read some more.
I know you’re wondering why I didn’t just tell you to go two and a half blocks and then take the path between the houses. The reason why is because you would not have followed those instructions. You’re nervous now about whether you’re trespassing. But by surprising you like that, you took a few steps down the path, and so, in your mind, you figured you were already part way down the path, and might as well just go the rest of the way. Of course, that’s not a very rational line of thought, but it was the easiest way I could get you to actually follow the path.For a bizarre situation, this was getting increasingly more bizarre. I don’t know whether it was true that I would not have followed the path if the letter had just told me to. But the description of why I decided to follow the path since I’d already taken two steps...that was just spooky. I did it subconsciously, but as soon as I read that description in the letter, I realized that was exactly what went through my mind.
I was getting a little scared, frankly, and was hoping this adventure would end soon. When I reached the end of the path, I took out the third sheet of paper to read.
In front of you is a long block. Cross the street and follow it until you get to the street where all the streetlights are burned out. Then turn right.It didn’t say not to read the next set of instructions, but I didn’t anyway. Maybe I had been “trained”; or maybe I was just afraid and didn’t want to know where all this was leading.
I reached the street where all the lights were burned out and turned right. I looked down at the letter, and (of course) couldn’t read it anymore because there was no light. A house a block ahead had a porch light on, and a few people sitting on the porch, dressed up in various costumes, drinking, smoking, talking with each other. One was even wearing a mask a little like the one I had left at the party, except his was brown. So I walked down the sidewalk until I was standing in front of the house, and used the light from their porch light to read the letter.
This is the last set of instructions. Once you’ve finished reading this, put the letter back into the envelope, and ask the people on the porch if one of them would deliver it to the monster at 4587 Windham Road. You’re going to have to give them the $100 you earned this week tutoring. I know you had plans for that money, but this is important Marwan. Remember, I love you more than you can imagine. This is the only way I could save you.Save me? Save me from what? But there wasn’t any more. That was the end of the letter. No signature. I put it back in the envelope and looked over at the people on the porch. I didn’t even wonder how the letter writer knew I would read this last set of instructions in front of this particular house. It was just one more weird event in a profoundly weird evening. The people seemed pretty drunk or stoned or both. One of them was looking at me (I was standing in front of their house after all), but most of them hadn’t even noticed me. I cleared my throat and said, “Uh, excuse me?”
The one looking at me said, “Yeah, what’s up?”
“Um...Could I ask you to do something? It would be a big favor. Could you deliver this letter to...” I thought back for a moment, “...the monster at 4587 Windham Road?”
They looked at me blankly. I had been hoping that the letter had been wrong about the $100, but it had been right about everything else (and how did whoever wrote it know I even had $100?). So I said, “I could give you some money if you’d do it.”
Another one spoke up. “How much?”
They looked around at each other, then the one wearing a mask said, “Heck, I’ll do it for $100. That’s just around the corner, anyway. I’ll be back in about a minute and a half.” I held out the letter to him, but he didn’t even stand up until I dug into my pocket, took out the $100, and held that out as well. He took it and said, “The monster, huh? Dude, it’s Halloween. Do you know how many monsters there are tonight?”
“I know, but...I mean...”
“Hey, don’t worry about it, man. The price is right. Be right back, guys.”
He began walking down the dark street. I looked over at the other people sitting on the porch, and they were ignoring me. It was pretty clear I wasn’t welcome. So I started walking back the way I came.
When I got back to the long block that would lead me back to the path, I turned and started following it. But then I had a sudden shock: that letter described what I did when I was 15! And it has my name on it!
I turned around and started running. Why did I do all of this? Why did I trust some letter writer I had never met just because he knew those details about me? If someone else read that letter, it would be the worst thing that could ever happen. I actually cried a little bit.
When I reached the house with the porch, one of them called out to me, “Hey, it’s done, man.”
I stopped and looked. The man who said that looked familiar, but he wasn’t the guy I gave the letter to. “What?”
One of the others turned to him and said, “Dude, you took your mask off. He doesn’t recognize you.”
He grinned. “Oh. Right. Yeah, man, I took my mask off on the way over there. That thing is really uncomfortable. Anyway, it’s right around the corner, like I said. It’s done.”
I looked down at the ground. Whoever had the letter was reading it right now. It was too late. I turned around and started walking back the way I came again. The guy called after me, “You’re welcome, man. Geez.”
I reached the long block, and turned again. At about the same spot where I had turned around, I suddenly realized why the guy who was wearing the mask looked so familiar.
He was the one who gave me the letter at the party.
I reached into my pocket, and took out the slip of paper I had written the address of the party on that afternoon. It said, “4587 Windham.”
So that’s what happened. I was in such a daze I don’t remember how I got home that night. I went back the next day to talk to the guy who had delivered the letter. He didn’t live at the house with the porch, but he lived nearby, and the people who did live there told me where. He thought I was crazy, and insisted that nothing unusual happened: I gave him the money to deliver the letter, he walked into the party, handed it to “some guy” with a mask, and then came back. And he really thought I was crazy when I kept asking him if it only happened once.
I walked the route I took that night again. It was basically just a circle. Three blocks, turn right, two and a half blocks, turn right, the path (no longer caring whether I was trespassing), then one long block, turn right, and then after a while the house with the porch is ahead, and the place where I started from is around the corner. I actually walked it several times, taking great care to time myself. Especially when I walked along the dirt path (that dog barked every time). But nothing out of the ordinary happened.
Anyway, I said I would tell you some of my conclusions. The first is that at some point during the walk, I must have skipped about twenty minutes into the past without noticing it. I gave the letter to the guy before I had received it. I used to tell people this conclusion more freely, but no one has ever agreed with me. They ask me, “Why did you follow the instructions? I wouldn’t have.” Or, “Didn’t you realize you were walking in a circle?” As if answering such questions to their satisfaction would somehow resolve the problem.
Some people have thought the guy who delivered it to me must have been playing some kind of prank. But I had never seen him before, how exactly could he have orchestrated this whole thing? How did he know how I would react when I turned down the path? How did he know that I had $100? How did he know my secret?
But to me, the more important question is obvious: who wrote the letter? I mean, think about it. It began to exist whenever I arrived twenty minutes (or so) in the past, and ceased to exist when I began the skip back. And even if we ignore this, there's still the question of how did the writer insert the letter into the loop? The only time it wasn’t in my hand was when the guy who delivered it to me had it; and according to him, he had it for less than a minute.
Think of it this way: at no point was there not a sufficient cause for the letter. I was holding it, having received it from another person, who had received it from a third person, who turned out to be me again, etc., ad infinitum. To explain how I got the letter you don't need to refer to anything other than the guy who gave it to me. And to explain how he got the letter you don't need to refer to anything other than me giving it to him. Every step had a cause.
But obviously there’s still something missing. We still need to say there was a cause for the loop itself, and a cause for the content of the letter. Simply explaining it by pointing to the infinite link of causes within the loop doesn't really explain anything.
But after thinking about this for a while, it occurred to me that this doesn't just apply to the letter. It applies to the universe as well. Even if the universe has always existed, and every event in it has a cause, you’d still need a cause for the universe itself, and for it to be the particular universe that it is. Just as there must be someone outside the loop who made the loop and wrote the letter, so must there be a cause for the universe that’s outside the universe who made it and gave it the particular content that it has.
So my bizarre experience forced me to think about things I wouldn’t have otherwise thought of. I think I know who wrote the letter now, and I know I wouldn’t have come to these conclusions, these beliefs, without it. I know this because the letter said this was the only way he could save me.
And that he loves me more than I can imagine.