Tuesday, January 06, 2009

What Might Have Been

So try not to think about what might have been
Cause that was then
And we have taken different roads
We can't go back again
There's no use giving in
And there's no way to know
What might have been
(Little Texas)

As another new year begins, I've been thinking about the year that has just gone by, and the years in general, that go by so quickly. Do you regret anything? Often, when asked this question, people respond that no, they don't have any regrets. I understand this answer, I do. One decision leads to another and another, and it's hard to regret one decision without regretting the place that you've ended up altogether. Regretting something means being sorry about what your life is right now, and hopefully, most of us don't feel that way.

But on the other hand, are we honest with ourselves when we say we don't have regrets? Perhaps the better way to phrase it is to ask if we don't wonder what might have been. What if I had stayed an extra year at college instead of graduating in three years? What if I'd gone to a different seminary? What if my family had moved to Schenectady as we once considered? What if I'd gone on the trip to Brazil instead of to do relief work in Mississippi? What if I'd taken that internship? It's so easy to wonder what might have been. I'm happy with my life and the way things are unfolding for me - but I just can't help but wonder sometimes.

In these instances, I can't help but thinking of The Chronicles of Narnia, by CS Lewis. In two different books in the series, I can think of characters struggling with what might have been scenarios. In Book 6, The Magician's Nephew, Digory rings a bell that wakes a witch because the inscription near the bell says that he'll be driven mad if doesn't ring it, always wondering what would have happened. Later, he comes to realize that of course, he was pretending to believe he would really be driven mad, and his rash decision had dire consequences. And in Book 2, Prince Caspian, Lucy can't convince her siblings to follow the only-visible-to-her-Aslan. Later, talking with Aslan, she realizes she should have followed him on her own. She asks Aslan if things would have worked out more easily if she had done so.

"You mean," said Lucy rather faintly, "that it would have turned out all right - somehow? But how? Please, Aslan! Am I not to know?"
Aslan responds, "To know what would have happened, child? No. Nobody is ever told that."
"O dear," Lucy responds.
"But anyone can find out what will happen . . . what will happen? There is only one way of finding out."

What might have been? Of course we can never know. And of course, I believe that actually knowing wouldn't satisfy our curiousity, it would just make us miserable, knowing and that still not changing anything. So is wondering even worth the effort?

I think Aslan is right. We can only know what will happen by the choices we make. And while some of the ways our lives unfold are beyond our control, the closest I come to regret is when I have to wonder what might have been because I didn't speak up, or I wouldn't take a risk, or I wasn't brave enough, or because I thought of my own self before someone else, or because I just didn't dare. I don't want to have to wonder what might have been because I was too afraid to do something or try something or experience something.

What might have been? Impossible to say. But what will be? There, I have some input.

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