Sunday, May 13, 2012

Connecting dots, no. 3

Desert palo verde
I’ve been writing here about what I learned from spending time with a therapist, and this will be maybe a lame attempt to sum up that experience. As I’ve said, the “analysis” came together in a kind of “synthesis” that suits me. Though I can’t speak for the therapist, who may have been expecting a different outcome.

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.

James Joyce
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 theres 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?

Robert Frost
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

12 comments:

  1. You've made much more sense of your life, and your future, than I have. Understanding your past gives you the key to tomorrow.

    I replay over and over the scene in Casablanca where Ilsa, bewildered by the choices she must make, asks Rick to decide what to do. He does. He returns the woman he loves more than life itself to her husband, a man he admires, because it is the right thing.

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    1. Thanks, Richard. I do believe alternative endings were tried in previews, and this is the one audiences preferred.

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  2. I don't dwell on the past. I made a decision and this is how it is now, no regrets. And things are always fixable in some kind if way. It's more about what I learn from my actions.

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    1. Thanks, Susan. My impulse has been to want things to add up. That involves looking back.

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  3. Maybe such thinking is one reason why alternate history often attracts me in reading. What choices we make as individuals, what choices we make as whole peoples. How different might things have been. But even taking one step back, about a job or a house, opens up so many complications that predicting is pretty much impossible, I should think. Nevertheless, we humans are built to speculate, I suppose.

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    1. Charles, you and I have been here before. For some reason, I lack the interest you have in speculative fiction.

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  4. How about JImmy Stewart in 'It' s a wonderful life'? Doesn't he find out that everyone would have been much worse off if he had not been born?!!

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    1. Good point, Michael. If I'd thought of that movie, it would go in the discussion with the other ones. It would complete the set.

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  5. A fine series of posts. Really like your insight on holding the westerns. Watching the oldest of silent movies, I often wonder about the crowd scenes. Knowing all those people eventually passed on, I confront a sense of wonder and, to a certain extent, peace. Time moves past us all...

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    1. Thanks, Richard. I neglected to mention the writers of these old books. They are long gone and mostly forgotten, too. It has been an unexpected pleasure, for that reason, to begin reading and interviewing living writers.

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  6. Ron, this is another fine introspective piece. Your posts have got me "connecting dots" in my life too and right now they seem to be scattered all over the place. Changes, big or small, scare the hell out of me too. I often hear people say that men are more averse to change than women, who usually flow with the tide, and that men live in the past and women don't — assessments I'm inclined to agree with. Thanks for the examples too, especially BUTTERLY EFFECT, I enjoyed that one.

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