A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a good friend and found myself talking about things I normally wouldn’t tell anyone else. I told them how every now and then, I would actively imagine the many ways my life could have gone differently if the accident had led to a less severe injury than the one I ended up with. Everything from having limited use of just my hands to walking out of that car wreck without a single scratch and every possible variation in between. My friend’s response immediately reminded me why that’s the kind of thought I would normally keep to myself. She felt it was dangerous of me to get lost in thoughts of “how things could’ve been different” and linger too long in the past.
I was initially tempted to brush it off and ask them to forget about it or just agree with their objections so we could move on from the topic. But that would have been a bit hypocritical of me. No matter how experienced, well-versed or trained anyone is in anything, being open to the occasional critique or opposing view from a possibly well-informed source is always a good thing. How else can we learn? So I chose to explain myself.
I’m very well aware of the dangers of dwelling on “ifs” and “maybes”. Wallowing in aspects of our past that didn’t play out how we hoped is an easy way to not only miss out on things playing out around us in the present but could also do damage that can inadvertently play out equally negatively or worse in our future. I’ve had too many dark days that began with feeling sorry for myself because I remembered and lingered too long on a memory of something in my past that I wished was different.
But this time, it is different. Since I started actively self-reflecting, I realised that to overcome some parts of my past that still haunt me, I have to work through them and not around them. If not having an aspect of my life a certain way causes me pain, I may not be able to ever fully remove that pain if I don’t understand why it exists. One of the ways I get that understanding is to honestly look back at the different ways I feel that aspect of my past could have been “better”; and what that would genuinely have looked like compared to what it looks like in reality.
So I’m not imagining walking out of that car wreck injury free and having the next decade full of everything I wish I could have done in the real world. No. I’m thinking, if I walked out of that car with no injuries, would my life actually be so much better? Without a doubt, in some ways, the answer is a resounding yes. But I would be fooling myself if I didn’t also think of all the ways it could have been worse. For example: Would I have been able to live with the survivor’s guilt from being unharmed while someone else ended up like I did in the real world? Or could there have been too much psychological damage from watching a good friend go through something so terrible and know I just got lucky and they didn’t? Would I have learned all the life lessons that have made up the man I am today if I didn’t have the experiences I had? Maybe I could have learned other things and still turned out alright? But I know fine well that adversity breeds character and maturity. So there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be as calm, patient, resilient, strong-willed and mature as I am today in the real world. What would that lack of character have meant going forward? Would I have been able to lead a fulfilling enough life if I didn’t appreciate it as much as I do now? Would I have made poor choices because I didn’t grow as quickly? Could I have ended up in a dead-end job, an unfulfilling relationship or some other worse version of a life than the one I now have? Extremely possible. I would be a fool to not accept these as possibilities in the same way I accept any “better” version of my life as having been a possibility. I know how my family rallied together in the aftermath of what happened to me. We’ve remained a solid unit till today, our unofficial motto being “Family Over Everything”. Can I guarantee we would be anywhere near as close if that didn’t bring us together and make us stronger? Or could we have gradually grown apart as we led our different lives and became different people who now speak of a time when we used to be closer to each other? Is this not also a possibility?
I could go on and on… AND ON, with all the different permutations, variations and alternate versions of how my life, and by proxy, the lives of those around me. But we are only human and live through life with hardly any real control over what it throws at us. If I can imagine one tiny detail of my past being different or “better”, I have to also be willing to accept that an infinite number of other things could have gone just as wrong or even worse than that one thing I changed. Life is random and chaotic after all. But that isn’t even the worst part. It would also mean pretending there is nothing good about the current version of my life. Wishing for one little thing to happen differently could very well be wishing away all the amazing people I have known and continue to meet, all the uniquely beautiful experiences I have had and continue to have, all the milestones I have achieved since and in spite of that one thing from my past. This is only the tip of the iceberg of all the mental gymnastics we subconsciously do every time we wish something was different from our past. We erase all the aspects of our lives that exist because they came after that one thing, both the good and the bad. We forget, or at least pretend not to know, that life isn’t perfect. It is rough, wobbly, asymmetric and chaotic, but it is life. And trying to control it so nothing bad happens is 1) the opposite of living; and 2) a surefire way to guarantee failure, heartbreak and disappointment.
Now don’t get me wrong, if you are to truly and honestly look at how things could be different, of course, there would also be many versions of our lives that could have been better and also still very probable. In the same vein, these are not to be ignored either. There is absolutely nothing wrong with fantasising and wishing that things could have played out better than they did, but not so we feel sorry for ourselves. That isn’t reality. Quite the opposite. Imagining how things could have been better should firstly be balanced out by understanding how they could have been worse. And then accepted as a past that can never be, but shows us what a possible future we can work towards looks like. In the same way hunger can make food taste better; knowing how it feels when things don’t go well should make us appreciate it more when they do. In the same way, touching and being burnt by a hot object teaches us to be cautious around hot objects going forward; understanding how actions might have led to unfavourable outcomes should teach us why and hopefully how to make better decisions going forward.
Yes, some memories can be painful, yet some memories are sweet. But both are in the past and now only exist in our heads. How we use them is, more often than not, our choice. We could get lost in them and ignore the things that exist in the present, outside our heads, in the real world, OR we could choose to try and use them to improve our present and possibly lead to better futures. The choice is yours.