Here’s a good game to play when you are alone: think back on your life and the paths it has taken so far, and try to imagine what your life might be like now had you made different choices. We make decisions about everything everyday, like what to eat for dinner or which route to drive home, and all of these have consequences. What I chose for dinner didn’t sit well and I didn’t sleep well and now I’m tired and cranky and what I had planned didn’t go the way it should have. The route I drove home was clear and fast, but the other choice had a one-hour delay due to an accident that I did not know about- whew, lucky choice since I had an appointment that I couldn’t miss. But we also make big life decisions such as whom to marry (or not to marry) and what job to take and where to live. Those times in my life when I face a huge path-altering decision, I usually write a weighted list of pros and cons; this really helps. But the truth is, one never ever can know what new paths will open from the choices one makes, and that lends a lot of uncertainty, insecurity and anxiety to these big questions.
When I met my husband, I was still in high school, but I already had a plan: graduate and move out west to start my adult life. I was not sure at that point whether I would go out there and attend college or find a job; I just knew I was going. When he followed me out and proposed marriage, I said “yes” without much thought. I knew I had found my soul-mate even though I was so young. But what if he had not followed me out there? After all, he had his own path laid out for him- when he got out of the Navy he had an apartment with friends waiting for him in Florida and he was already accepted to the University there. He blew off all of that to take a chance on me (chew on that for a minute…). But what if he hadn’t? Would I have found someone else who was man enough to be my man? Would I have stayed in Tucson for over ten years? Would I have missed him so much that I would have changed course and moved to Florida and chased him instead?
When I was in college, I had NO idea what job I wanted to do after I graduated. I was heading into my junior year when I finally decided to become a teacher. At the time I was majoring in Spanish and when one of my friends asked what in hell I was going to do with a Spanish major, it forced me to think. I thought about becoming a translator at the United Nations, but I did not want to move back to New York City at that point. Someone dropped a casual suggestion about the bilingual education department; and I, who had never really liked kids when I was growing up (true confession), decided what the hell, I’ll try it. I fell head over heels in love with the program and the kids and have never looked back. But my other area of interest was science. I loved hanging around the Geology department with the cool, brilliant scientists. They traveled all over the world exploring and bringing back valuable information that helped shape our scientific knowledge base. What if I had gone that way? How would that have affected my marriage and family plans- spending lots of time away from home out there in a field that was completely male-dominated and very exciting?
When we were both tired of living in the desert and wanted to move where there were seasons, and to find a healthy place to raise our family, I applied for a PhD program at the University of New Hampshire. There, one of the world famous professors in the field of writing education had two openings in his program. I interviewed very well, and with my great references, he told me verbally that I would likely get one of the spots. We packed up, sold our house, I quit my job and hubby closed out his business. We moved like the Beverly Hillbillies with all of our stuff, which we put in a storage facility in New Hampshire, and stayed with my mother in New York City to await a confirmation….which never came. I was rejected from the program. When I rack my brains, I can come up with a few reasons why, but one possibility is that I chose to take my nine-week old infant to the interview and nurse him then and there. I think maybe the deciders thought I would be too busy with a new baby to take on the responsibility and commitment of a doctoral program. What if I had gotten accepted after all and had completed the PhD? Would my children have grown up in New Hampshire then? Would my husband have been as successful in his business?
Recently, a sweet real estate deal came up and although we were very comfortable in our life and our home, we had to decide: go for the deal or not? Sell our house or rent it out? Move into the new house or rent that one out instead? What if, what if, what if…
It is also entertaining and thought-provoking to ponder possibilities that are not based on my own choices that would have changed the course of my life, or even changed whether I would have one. What if Hitler had never been born or had not been so successful in his evil plan- would I also not have been born? Would my parents have met anyway over in Europe and would I then have been raised as a wealthy German debutante? What if John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr had not been assassinated? What would this country be like today? What if the Native Americans had chosen not to help the Pilgrims survive in this country, but let them die out? Certainly, at the very least, your plans for this Thursday would be affected.
It’s an exercise of the mind to wonder about things. I use this natural human mental process in teaching students when I ask them: what if there were four kids to share ten cookies instead of five? What if we leave one plant out by the window and water it but put another plant in the closet and forget about it? What if the Lazy Dog and the Lazy Cat and the Lazy Cow had decided to help the Little Red Hen make the bread? Kids love these questions almost as much as they love to ask “why?”
So next time you’re bored, let your mind wander and wonder. It’s a great use of “down time”, and who knows, you might even make some interesting discoveries about yourself. Just have fun with it, and don’t let it take you to the Regret Zone. That’s a waste of time and an exercise in futility….
Postscript: an article on What If… http://news.yahoo.com/jfk-had-survived-assassination-100212215–politics.html