Here are a few conversations I’ve had:
Person 1: Maybe things would have been different if I’d gone to a different uni. It’s a big ole world out there. Different countries are awesome (some of them). What if I’d taken the leap, made some changes, held out for something less predictable?
Person 1: Man, I wonder what would have happened if I’d stayed with him. What if I hadn’t been such an immature idiot?
Person 1: That dress is pretty. And I love it. And I’m so glad I bought it, such a bargain. What if I hadn’t, though? I could have saved that money, maybe bought something more useful that I actually NEED.
Notice how there’s only one person in each of these conversations? Yeah…that person is me. Also notice how there are no answers to any of the above musings. Because there are no answers.
Here’s another few conversations:
Person 1: Ohhhhh CRAPTROUSERS that car…did not crash into me. Oh thank God. Wow, I wish people would stop pulling out of side roads really fast without indicating. What if I hadn’t seen him, though?
Person 1: Yep…that is a gas flame that almost just caught my no doubt somewhat flammable clothing. Nope, didn’t die. No scary flame death situation here. Coulda been though. Nearly. What if it did happen? Wonder what I would’ve done – I mean actually done, in the next few seconds, if I was in a scary flame death situation. What’s the first step?
Person 1: sdjlxckvjldfjadflcxkvjf!!!&&&%^!EWWEoiuiuhK! It’s fine, it’s fine, I’m fine. I slipped – ok, I fell – but, a) no one saw it, and b) I didn’t fall two inches to the left which would have resulted in my head encountering the edge of that table. What if I had? I would have been unconscious. And no one’s gonna be home for maybe a week. And I could have DIED. Two inches.
Only one person. Exactly zero answers.
My life is full of what ifs, and so is yours. So is everyone’s. There have been wasted opportunities, and there have been averted disasters. But do you know how much good it does to over-analyse them? None whatsoever.
I mean that. There is not one single thing you’re going to gain from blaming yourself for the things you didn’t do, or from replaying how close you came to dying horribly. So why do we do it? And having worked out that it’s pointless, why do we keep doing it?
Playing the pointlessness game
I hate to say it, but we’re not rational and logical beings. Even you men. Hey, I know I’m irrational sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you’re always rational. Don’t take it bad.
Just because we know something does us no good at all; just because we know it’s going to do us actual harm, physically, financially, or emotionally; just because we know it’s pointless…doesn’t stop us doing it. (Incidentally, this is why markets aren’t perfect, particularly in the area of public health. Taxing the hell out of cigarettes does not make them magically less desirable to someone who’s addicted to them. There isn’t some sweet spot of taxation, a tipping point, where cigarettes will suddenly become so expensive that no one will buy them ever again, ergo no lung cancer, ergo the NHS is saved, ergo everyone lives long enough to traumatise their great-great-grandchildren. But that’s another story…)
Part of the process of dealing with shock, for example nearly dying in a freak snowboarding accident, is to tell and retell the story. What you most need is an audience, someone to be suitably impressed by how close to death you have recently come, and make the appropriate noises of sympathy. It helps you to process what you’ve just been through if you can share it with another person. Or ideally, many persons. Hello, social media.
So there is some point to retelling your story, for a while after the incident has happened. It’ll help you, heal you, reassure you that it wasn’t worse than it was. But after that, when you’ve squeezed out every ounce of usefulness from the replay, you can get stuck in a damagingly repetitive loop. It’s not rational, it’s not logical, but it’s the way of things.
And you can do it for the wasted opportunities as well as the averted disasters. You can beat yourself up again and again, wondering whether you should have done something that you didn’t or said something that you didn’t. Again, it’s useful to an extent to think about these things, but only if it will actually change the way you live your life in future. Only if you figure out what went wrong, why you wasted those opportunities, and how you’re going to fix that.
What I’ve described above – some people will do this to themselves a lot, others just a little. But whether you torture yourself with this kind of thing all the time or only sometimes, it’s still a ridiculous waste of time and emotion.
Are we doomed, then?
No. I don’t think we are. I think it’s possible to train yourself out of this habit of thinking. To let go of the what ifs, to recognise that each experience you have had has contributed to the complex tapestry of your present moment, to watch the world through a lens of all the different colours you’ve ever seen – the sad and the bad as well as the beautiful ones.
Life is strange. It’s full of imperfections. There are no straight lines from this place to that one – you always find yourself on a detour. Even the happiest of endings got there by way of some unhappiness. Sometimes the happy ending doesn’t arrive at all. Sometimes it looks different from what you thought it would, and sometimes you might not recognise it because you were looking for something else.
The present moment…is not simply a finite thing measured by the clock; it’s a palimpsest of all the present moments before it, their images, music, words and whispers rising up through the layered years from the oldest present moment to the newest; and in those moments live, remembered or forgotten, sleeps and wakings and dreams.– Amaryllis Night And Day by Russell Hoban