|Desert palo verde|
Timidity is my unhappiest character trait. I’ve stepped back from making some hard decisions in the past. This may well be yet another instance of that. Big changes scare the hell out of me. On the other hand, I’d argue that making a little change can also make a big difference.
Connecting all the dots of my life story, I could see a repeating pattern of choices that often seemed self-defeating. Maybe everyone’s life looks like that with the wisdom of hindsight. But there’s more than one way to look at a life.
Taking a 7 a.m. walk in the desert this morning, I got to thinking of what I would do if given the chance to go back and change one thing about my life. What decision would I undecide if I could?
I might go back to the day I decided to buy this house, which is now hopelessly underwater and prevents me from having many retirement options. Or I could go back to when I decided to take a job that required uprooting my family from a city we’d all grown to like.
Or I could go back to the decision to leave my first teaching job. Or further back, my decision to stay in a small-town high school instead of transferring to a much bigger one with more opportunities. Or I could go all the way back to the day I decided to play too rough in fourth grade and lost my front teeth on the school basement floor.
Lots of choices, but undeciding one would have a butterfly effect hard to predict. There’s a movie by that name, Butterfly Effect, about a guy who gets the chance to go back and live his life differently. When he does, he ends up each time with a worse mess than the one he was trying to fix. Eventually, he discovers that everyone would have been better off if he’d never been born at all.
There’s another movie, Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again until he finally “gets it right.” There’s probably a reason why I always mention that one when I’m asked for my favorite movies. I like to assume that there was a perfect pattern of choices I didn’t make that would have left me happier, more fulfilled, and a benefit to everyone around me.
There’s a third movie that’s my true sentimental favorite, John Huston’s adaptation of the James Joyce story, “The Dead.” It captures life as it’s lived, by people who must live with the unalterable choices made by and for each of them. Life is trial and error, and even in the festivities of a holiday social gathering, Joyce argues that bitter and sweet are bound together and inseparable. You can’t have one without the other. We are vulnerable and there’s no escaping it.
Therapy as it’s practiced, I believe, would try to deny that. It advocates a philosophy of eat, drink and be merry. Accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative. OK, it’s a noble goal, but eventually it has its limits. It has trouble accommodating what Joyce reminds us of from first word to last in his story. His closing words chill a reader with the finality of the death that comes to all:
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Yet grief also has its limits. I can think of all “the dead” whose lives were touched by the old early westerns I’m reading. Especially when I’m holding in my hands a copy printed over 100 years ago. Who else, men and women, old and young, held this book in their own hands?
I can’t go back and change anything for them. But I can choose to remember them not as dead, but living in their time. And if I could wish them anything, it would be to simply love the life and the time they’ve been given and to enjoy it as well as they can, even its bitter sweetness. Then I can wish the same for myself—and for you reading this.
What I came to, after mulling over all those months of therapy, is something like the same conclusion that Frost came to in “The Road Not Taken.” I’m no doubt twisting the meaning he intended, but I can look back over my life and think of it the same way. Not as the wrong road taken, but as simply one of my own choosing. One that made all the difference.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: James Reasoner, Texas Rangers