In his sublime poem, Maud Muller, John Greenleaf Whittier wrote about a maid and a judge having met, fell in love with each other. But neither takes an active hand in voicing their thoughts and they go on their separate ways to marry entirely different people – she marries an uneducated farmer, while he takes a wife who loves his money more than him. Memorably written, if not somewhat comedic, Whittier concludes with a well-known quotation: Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.”
We may not be as poetically attuned to language as Whittier, but we’ve invariably found ourselves at many key points of our lives wondering if we have made the right choice or how things would have played out had we taken a different path. And some choices are so influential that it feels like being in a choose-your-own-adventure book. However, and something we regularly overlook, is that even seemingly trivial decisions like which friend to spend more time on or who to love more, have the cumulative potential to snowball and become major decisions.
This is not uncommon in psychology where it’s often understood that simple everyday (and deliberate) decisions like consciously showing just a bit of kindness, love or attention, can greatly impact the quality of interaction between individuals. We rarely think more about our minor decisions but they go a surprisingly long way in showing that we care about someone’s existence, or that something is worth fighting for. Small decisions matter as much as the big ones, and that’s important to remember during moments of reflection when we wonder how things have gone wrong or become better.
But inevitably, when it comes to the big stuff, we eventually find ourselves wondering along variations of the lines “if only I…” or “what if…”. How would life play out then?
Among one of the more fascinating possibilities explored in Science (also greatly popularised, if not inaccurately, in the runaway anime, Stein’s Gate, as well as the phenomenal Bioshock Infinite game), is that of the multiverse theory. Supposedly, there exists a separate universe for every decision we’ve made. That is to say, there exists a world where you choose not to fall in love, or maybe take up the job offer to Africa. In those worlds, it’s also possible that any of the infinite choices may have resulted in an early demise.
Although more philosophical than scientific, the multiverse theory suggests that we do fully live out all combinations and permutations of our decisions, and that it is possible to imagine alternative scenarios just like how we find ourselves inclined to when the mood takes us.
While the conditional phrase ‘If only I did / didn’t” suggests a clear dichotomy between doing and not doing, or rather a choice between a simple yes or no, that’s a very dangerous mental trap to fall into. Despite what laws and religion try to tell us, our choices in decisions are as complex as that of morality – neither can be confined to a fixed category and both are best understood on a continuum. In fact, every choice we commit to comes with a remarkable gradation. Exactly how much or how little will you do or not do something?
You may look back at your life and lament how if only you didn’t give up something important. But exactly how much more would you have done? Perhaps in the end, you wouldn’t have tried that hard anyway and the consequences of the decision would still remain the same.
Also important to remember is that we have a very unfortunate habit of imagining ourselves as the sole agent of the universe, that is to say we think that we have the luxury of making our all-important decisions and everyone else will later react accordingly. But the truth is that arriving at decisions isn’t like a game of chess. We don’t have two minutes to decide on a move, hit the chess clock and wait for our opponent to make his/her move. In reality, all actors are always simultaneously making their moves. When you delay, hem or haw, the others around you may already have completed their moves.
This means that even if you could choose differently, the outcome may in some cases either be the same or worse off. Because even if you picked an alternative path, the other players in your life will also pick something different in reaction to your new choice, and may still end up obstructing you anyway. You may think it’s your decision that matters, or that it’s entirely your fault for making a bad call, but when push comes to shove, perhaps none of the choices at that point of time could have made the slightest difference.
In the end, the ‘what ifs’ are not as important as the decisions we choose to commit to now. So what if life could have told a different story, or so what if you could have saved more money had you waited for the stocks to rise? Every decision good or bad will serve to teach us something, and life is primarily nothing more than an aggregation of experiences both good and bad. Right now, as long as we can properly justify, by heart or mind, through memories or feelings, who or what should be a part of our decision making process, we should spend more time living with the choices we’ve made rather than dwelling on what could be.
So, Have you thought about (HYTA) how “If only I did / didn’t…” is not as simple as it seems?