I have been giving a lot of thought lately to mistakes I might have made in the past. Let’s not say mistakes; let’s rather say that if I had to make certain choices over again that I made long decades ago, I would have made them differently. And then I wonder what might have happened if I had done this instead of that.
For such speculation, you first have to establish a few ground rules. It’s all theoretical anyway, so I can’t worry that if I had made different choices my five awesome sons would never have existed. When I have thought such thoughts before, that realization was always a brick wall that I slammed into. But we have to understand what we are doing here. Nothing is really going to change. It is an exercise in hypotheses, in alternative realities. Because let’s face it: I definitely would do things differently if I had to do them all over. I would make different choices based upon the decades of experiences I have had, the knowledge I have absorbed, the wisdom (hopefully) I have developed. My life would be radically changed by just one or two deviations in the past, and then that choice would have necessitated another, and another, and so on, until what I would have become… Well, there’s an interesting speculation. Would I be basically the same man I am now with only different outward trappings, or would I be a whole new person?
Apart from decisions concerning my children, which are always deal-breakers, my thoughts boil down to two important realities: my writing, and my need for companionship – in that order. Writing always figures in the equation, no matter what. In the past I left some good women behind in the pursuit of my calling as a writer. Now I realize that I might have compromised and somehow brought one of them along with me; but who knew?
I could have approached my writing in a different way, too. I felt I had to get out there, live life to the full, to have something worth writing about. To make that happen, I first hitchhiked to Central America and back. That wasn’t good enough. So I hitchhiked across the United States and around Europe. That still didn’t do the trick. Finally I headed across the Middle East to India. Still not enough. So I did it again. I didn’t know when to stop. I had started to pour out words, and I was afraid that if I slowed down, if I came in off the road, that maybe the flow of words would dry up. I wrote a piece once called “Hitching Up the Alaskan Highway in the Dead of Winter” – it was the epitome of the death-defying road trip. I never really made that one, but I thought about it a lot. I imagined that the stranger, the more death-defying, the more off-beat the experience, the more it was worth writing about.
Now I realize that I can write about anything. Now I realize that you don’t even need to leave your back yard to soar to distant galaxies in the realm of the imagination. Back then I didn’t get it. It was like a phase I was passing through. That’s one of the specific things I have been thinking about lately. Maybe I should have come in out of the cold. Maybe I should have gotten off the road earlier. I had plenty of opportunities. I mean, I know that life is one great road journey, in a sense, but if I had settled (relatively at least) somewhere along the way, perhaps I would have established myself professionally as a writer earlier. Perhaps things would have been easier and I wouldn’t have found myself struggling so much so late in the game.
But then I come to the second rule of alternative realities: if I had made different choices, things might have gone differently and I might be in a different situation now, but that doesn’t mean that things would be better. I am still a flawed human being, after all, as are you, and as whoever I might have settled down with would have been as well. Things might have turned out worse – possibly much worse, who knows?
In the end, this is the reality that I am stuck with, for better or for worse. All I can do is use the wisdom I have accumulated to make better choices now. As for the past… Well, believe it or not, it gave me peace of mind to think that if I had the choices to make again I would make better ones. It shows me that I have developed, I have grown, I have learned a few things. And it gives me more confidence to make better choices up the road. Longing for the past is a fool’s game, because it’s not going to happen. Factoring lessons from the past into future decision-making is different. That is using the past as a strength instead of a weakness.
So I allow myself these daydreams now and again, these speculations about what might have been. After all, profound past experiences are worth recollecting. It’s like an energy bar that never gets consumed, that peps up your spirit continually. Our pasts are like gold mines of experiences. Why not enjoy the riches? I can tell you, setting out on the road with a wad of cash in your pocket is much better than setting out empty. What’s past is past, sure, but it’s also what fuels and directs you into the future.