You are a person. At this moment, you are reading this essay. But you have existed at other moments; at those moments, the person who existed was you. At each moment, your body is extended in space. But from moment to moment, you are extended in time. At any moment in time, you are different from earlier moments. For example, some of your cells have died and new cells have been created. What you are sensing may be different from what you sensed earlier. But in spite of those changes, you are still the same person. This is true for any two moments of time in your life, regardless of how different you are at those two moments.
Many Twilight Zone episodes explore the concept of personal identity by asking us to imagine more radical differences in a person at different moments of time than are typical of the differences in a person over time. While you, as an adult, are clearly the same person you were as a teenager, in spite of the differences, “The Trade-Ins,” for example, explores whether you would be the same person as an earlier stage of yourself if you were to trade in your body for a new body. In “Dead Man’s Shoes” someone steps into a pair of shoes and that change breaks the person’s identity, and the resultant person is someone else, the person whose shoes were stepped into.
“Spur of the Moment” is about a person named Anne Henderson. The transformations Anne goes through are not due to new technology or mysterious happenings, but are simply the normal changes experience as we move from young adulthood to middle age. Anne lives her life through successive moments, as we all do. However, in reflecting on the life of a person, we can sample a person’s life by sampling and comparing various stages of that life, and we can do that in any order. We can start with the older Anne, and then examine an earlier stage of her existence, and we can jump from one moment in time to another, distant point in time.
Like the life of Elva Keene in “Night Call,” two stages of Anne’s life, separated by many years, are brought together. First, there is Anne engaged to marry a young man her parents approve of, but at the cost of rejecting her true love, of whom her parents disapprove. Second, there is Anne more than twenty years later, as an unhappily married women who realizes that she made the wrong choice. This may seem to be a sad, but rather prosaic tale. Bad marriages are a dime a dozen. What is special about this episode is the way Anne’s regret is represented, and what that representation demonstrates about the metaphysics of personhood and time.
The episode opens with the elder Anne (Anne Marie Mitchell) on horseback, chasing after and calling to the younger Anne (Anne Henderson). Only later, when we understand more about the trajectory of Anne’s life, do we realize that the older stage of Anne is trying to warn the younger Anne not to make the choice of a husband that she in fact will make. Wait. How can this be? Consider your own case. Is there a possible world in which and older version of yourself can chase after you? That would require that the older version of you exists at the same time as you exist. But an older you is someone who only exists at a time later than the time at which you are existing. So that stage of you can’t exist at the same time that you exist. Anne Henderson and Anne Marie Mitchell can’t occupy the same moment in time. Therefore, the opening scene presents an impossible state of affairs.
The presentation of a state of affairs that isn’t possible is, in this case, a deliberate move, and the scene is described as impossible by Serling in his opening narration. Anne Marie Mitchell can’t occupy the moment in time in which Anne Henderson exists, even though she is the same person, precisely because she is the same person. Thus the advice that Anne Marie Mitchell is trying to convey to Anne Henderson can’t be conveyed.
Regret is an attitude of condemnation toward actions one has taken oneself or has participated in. The tragedy of regret has much to do with the fact that the knowledge one has of one’s own past mistakes can’t be used to correct the mistakes, particularly when the time at which one has regret is temporally distant from the time of the action one regrets.
Williams, Bernard, 1973, Problems of the Self, Cambridge University Press.