By the time I hit my mid 20s, I could already see that much of my life has been shaped by patterns of small, often seemingly irrelevant, decisions. Like a “choose your own path” storybook, life unfolds in a boldly unique direction whenever we make a series of choices or, sometimes, even a single choice.
It is no wonder then that so many of us are plagued by the curse of “what if”. What if I had not given up on playing the piano? What if I had taken up the Political Science degree? What if I had chosen the other job, when two offers came on the same day? What if I had been more patient? What if I had apologized? What if I had stood up for myself? What if we were still friends?
Nobody is immune to contemplating their choices and imagining alternative results. Who puts down a “choose your own path” book without turning back the pages to read through all the alternative endings? Not me. Our natural curiosity about how our lives may have turned out differently, had we made different decisions, is a testament to the human will to always grow, learn, and improve. Learning from past trends in our lives helps us steer the direction of our future.
This is the upside to asking ourselves the question. Looking back is a fundamental element in growing forward. However, “what if” could also be heart-wrenching, and it is at those times that we most need to trust that our instincts have served us well.
In the attempt to find out what could have happened if we had chosen differently, we tend to reach back into the past and try to find some clues. Have you ever reached out to someone from ten years ago in pursuit of that friendship you lost? What did you learn from this?
I’ve learned that, if someone is no longer a part of my life, there is probably a good reason for that. Now, this doesn’t mean that we can’t be friends going forward. After all, time persistently regenerates and makes new people out of us. But there is no use in wondering what could have come from a different decision in the past, because nine times out of ten, we followed our instincts and they led us in a particular direction for an important reason. The reason may not always be clearly known, but that is where faith comes in.
Have you ever contemplated going back to school to pursue another career path, or even gone back to school for it? When you take a few classes, you will undoubtedly draw connections between your past and present learning. My undergraduate degree theoretically had nothing at all to do with my graduate degree or my career, yet it somehow still plays a fundamental role in my success. I went back to school to fulfill my “what if,” and ended up discovering that nothing learned is in vain.
Every small decision you make can alter the path of your life forever. I once decided I was too shy to ask my friend’s dad to pick me up, despite the fact that he was such a kind man and would have certainly agreed. I didn’t go to the party and went to school the next morning wondering “what if” I had missed something fun, only to be greeted by the somber eyes of all my friends who knew well ahead of me that there was a big accident… and he did not survive. I learned that day that there is no use in the fear of missing out. There is only what we decide, and what is written for us.
A few years later, I met a brilliant 18 year old man on a trip and we instantly got along. He was one of few people who seemed genuinely interested in my writing, and I expressed to him that I was experiencing some severe writer’s block. “Why is it that there are no people like you at my school?” I asked him. “Why do I always click with people who I have to leave behind? If I had never left my home, I would have so much to write about!” His response was simple… “don’t worry so much about “what if”. Things happen for strange reasons; we only understand in retrospect. Just make the most of what you do have, and write anyway.”
Before I said goodbye, I told him that I would write, eventually, one day. He laughed and told me that indeed, I would, perhaps a few years after he’s gone. I rolled my eyes at him, not knowing how soon he would be gone. “Don’t be so dramatic. You’re 18. If I have to wait till you’re gone to write, I’ll be like… 90!”
“Don’t forget to dedicate the first book to me!”
He died two years later.
For four (or so) hours spent with someone I will mourn for the rest of my life, I understand now that God was doing his protective work.
There is only choice, and what is written for us.
Forget about “what if”.
And remember… we design our own luck!