The Permutation Machine versus the Ice Cream Truck

Shawn Tucker has sent us a follow-up to a recent post. Some great ideas — thanks, Shawn! I will note that I like the optimism of his metaphor.

Steve Evans’ recently presented a sort of thought experiment about a permutation machine. The machine would allow one to see all of the other alternative outcomes for one’s life choices. In order for such a machine to make sense, you have to imagine that time moves in one direction, and that while there are many alternatives for each choice, only one can be selected. In addition, you have to imagine that each choice is completely unique and can never be revisited. You only had one chance to send or not send that note in 5th grade, to say hello or not say hello to that person in your Biology class, or to let or not let that hand linger there a little longer.

Thinking about time, choice, the path of one’s life, and even eternal consequences in that manner can be interesting.

It can also be the clap that triggers an avalanche of anxiety. If I start to picture how one seemingly minor decision might prove unique, crucial, and irrevocable, making a world and an eternal world’s difference, I can easily feel paralyzed with dread about making any decisions. And I would add that the common notion that the “pains of hell” are at least in part the knowledge of what I could have or be had I only made different decisions from the one’s I made only compounds the sense of dread.

In the place of such a view, perhaps we could imagine an ice cream truck. I don’t know if these are regular fixtures anywhere, or even if they ever were, but we’ll imagine a white truck slapped with colorful stickers on its sides moving slowly through a neighborhood followed by a vapor trail of happy kids waving nickels. The truck stops at regular intervals and dispenses rocket pops, ice cream sandwiches, and fudgsicles. But inevitably some poor child is late or another one’s mom is using this experience to teach a lesson about saving one’s allowance or the value of keeping one’s bedroom clean. Still, the great thing about the ice cream truck is that it will be back tomorrow or the next day, hopefully when one has the necessary change or a clean closet (or at least has things convincingly stuffed under the bed).

So what if we think about time, choice, the path of one’s life, and eternal consequences with the notion of the ice cream truck? Unlike the previous version of time, the ice cream truck will come back. Getting ice cream from the truck is not a unique, one-time experience. Missing the truck now does not mean it is gone forever. And if you make a poor choice this time—getting a boring vanilla ice cream sandwich instead of opting for the very-worthy-of-extra-expense strawberry, chocolate, vanilla one—does not mean you are stuck with that choice forever. Financial folly, domestic disorder, and parental punishment do not turn momentary weakness into permanent prohibition.

The real value of the ice cream truck way of looking at time, choice, life, and eternity is that we can think of God as wanting us to acquire certain qualities or traits. Those traits are the ice cream. God sends many experiences and people into our lives to give us a chance to get to develop the faith or patience or resilience we need to be like Him. Sometimes we are ready and waiting, eagerly holding our money in a tight little fist. Sometimes we are not ready, but the truck will come again tomorrow and the next day, and many, many more times. And it seems like it will keep coming long after this life has ended. In fact, it seems to me that the only way that the truck will stop coming is if we willingly, willfully, and very permanently move ourselves to somewhere where it does not go.


  1. A Happy Hubby says:

    As Homer Simpson might say, “Mmm. Ice Cream. Ice Cream good.” Maybe I shouldn’t have skipped breakfast.

    I do like the ice cream analogy of life vs. the “each and every day you could make one wrong choice that could end up sending you to hell.” Ice Cream good. Ymmm.

  2. The Other Clark says:

    Yes, but with Mormon culture, if you screw up (1) going on a mission (2) marriage choice, (3) number of children, that ice cream truck never comes back. Perhaps the character trait development happens in other ways, but you can’t go back.

  3. I didn’t go on a mission, I made a bad marriage choice, I had 6 kids (good choice) then after many years and ups and downs, I did go on a mission, with my new and much improved spouse and I now have 7 kids (1 is my step son) If you keep trying and keep listening the chances come back. I think that is what we are promised by enduring!

  4. Happy Hubby–yes, yes, ice cream good! Patience, love, faith, kindness, compassion, tolerance–also good!

    The Other Clark–all of the events you mention in no way forever prevent the development of essential traits that will make us Celestial people. They may be missed opportunities with painful consequences, but they do not prevent future opportunities for growth.

    honey–wow, thanks for the comment! Congratulations on taking advantage when the truck came back by, and congratulations on perhaps coming away with more faith and a stronger conviction about the value of enduring. Bravo!

  5. I really like your hopeful take, Shawn.

  6. “there’ll be an ice cream truck in every town, when the man comes around…”

  7. Melinda W. says:

    I used to have this fear that on Judgment Day, God would sit down with me and show me the life I should have had if only I’d made all the right choices. I messed up some major ones and was pretty sure my life was off track completely. Then I had this experience with a line in my patriarchal blessing that had seemed like a strange thing to say when I was 16 and received my blessing. But twenty years later, in the light of the disaster I’d made of my life, it was actually God saying he knew I was going to do this, along with a nudge towards the way out.

    That helped me get over the fear that I’d screwed up my eternal destiny. This life I have, even though it’s sure not one to hold up as ideal, is still Plan A. God *knew* what I was going to do wrong. Things haven’t worked out yet, but I’m not freaking out in self-blame and regret anymore.

  8. Reincarnation?

  9. Melinda–that is remarkable! It takes great resilience and faith to not give up, and the reward was a renewed or a reorganized faith in God and His plan for you. It does seem like you were previously not ready for the ice cream truck, so to speak, but you see that He was ready and willing to send it around again. Great Stuff!

    RJH–I wrote about that here:

  10. Melinda W. says:

    Shawn – the more I think about this post, the more I like the idea behind it (the metaphor is cute too). In our zeal to encourage people to make the right choices the first time around, we may leave the impression that there are no second chances. The truth is, the Atonement applies to major life decisions as well. But consequences don’t go away. I will live with consequences my entire life, but I’ve learned that through grace, those consequences are turned into blessings, i.e., an opportunity to draw closer to God by needing him more.

    While I hope my children pick the best ice cream the first time around so they don’t have to deal with messy consequences, I also can assure them that God won’t quit on them.

    Thanks for writing it. I hope you get a chance to use it in a Sacrament Meeting talk someday.

  11. The very idea of “eternal” marriage is incompatible with the realities of a flawed and fallen world. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t something to aspire to–but trying to figure out how eternal marriage actually works is akin to trying to figure out how Zion will work–pure speculation.

    Once we get there, we’ll know–but we’re a long way from Zion. Same thing with eternal marriage. Perhaps the journey itself gives us the wisdom to figure out how to deal with it, when we get there.

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