What If . . .

“What’s past is prologue.”

– Shakespeare, The Tempest –

The mysteries of time have always challenged philosophers, physicists, and novelists, too. Since 1895 when H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine was published, the human imagination has played with the possibility of time travel. It may be the stuff of fantasy and sci-fi, but we do a type of time traveling every day. We go back in time when we read history or novels set in the past or even the news of what happened last week or yesterday. We go forward in time when we imagine how next week’s committee meeting will go or anticipate our vacation next summer. We go back in time when we peruse old photographs and memories. We also go back in time when we imagine what life might have been like on the “road not taken,” that “what-if” of choice and chance bypassed on paths that we’ve already traveled.

Unlike the trail ahead of us, which is unmapped, the trail behind us is full of the tracks we’ve left behind. It’s a time line of our lives. In an abstract art class I once took, our instructor directed us to create our own abstracts starting with a single charcoal line drawn across a large piece of paper – one line that represented our life. Then we took turns telling, in general, how the lines we drew symbolized our lives. One woman’s line wandered all over the paper. Another woman’s line spiraled. Another student had drawn smooth curves interrupted with jagged, mountainous sections. It was fascinating to hear my fellow students explain this zig-zag, or that curve, or the dramatic, bold line that looked as if it fell straight off a cliff.

My abstract looked like a roller coaster. As novelist J. Courtney Sullivan said of one of her characters, “She had made a choice and then she had made another and another after that. Taken together, the small choices anyone made added up to a life.” My choices had added up to a life. As I stood there studying my lifeline, I found myself thinking about the negative space, the white space around the line. That empty space was a powerful symbol of roads not taken. I couldn’t help wondering “what if.”


I suspect that my fellow artists were posing the same question about their own lives. When we look back at our past choices, “what-if” is hardly something we can avoid. But it can be risky. “The thought of what could have been eats at the center of the heart,” writes author Joan Chittister. “It pretends to be reflection, a kind of tally of the years. But . . . [r]egret is a temptation. It entices us to lust for what never was in the past rather than to bring new energy to our changing present.”

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson theorized that in older adulthood, we find ourselves living in either integrity or despair, depending on how we look back on life. The life road we traveled may have been steep or rocky, fogged-in or full of switchbacks, but if we view it as our path to wholeness and maturity, we’re able to feel a sense of integrity, integrating the various aspects of life into the whole.

On the other hand, if we view the past with regret and remorse, we’re likely to feel a sense of despair. In The Spirituality of Age, psychology professor Robert Weber says that in older years, despair results from denial, which comes from a place of self-protection. We’re hiding, he says, from guilt or shame instead of facing it, admitting it, and unburdening ourselves. If we dwell on if-only and roads not taken, we feel a sense of despair.


 Of course, older adulthood is not the only stage of life when we’re subject to pining over if-onlys and roads not taken. We all see unexplored paths when we look back. We’re all aware of lost opportunities, missteps and failures, and decisions made too quickly or in the heat of emotion. It’s human nature to assume that the road not taken would have led to a life that’s better, healthier, and more satisfying than the one we have now. But would it have? That “what-if” has no answer. The truth is, there are hundreds of paths we didn’t take. Another truth is, the journey is not yet done. Going forward, we can prevent a lot of despair by refusing to dwell on what-ifs and if-onlys.

In one sense, Shakespeare was exactly right when he said that the past is prologue. And from what I know about writing novels, I can say with confidence that the only prologue worth including is one that’s essential to understanding the story to come. In real life, that’s all of it. As Isabel Allende said, “I am now the sum of everything I have been before.” Our past is an essential part of who we are now. Acknowledging that can help us understand where we currently stand on our own timeline and where we’d like to go in the future.

 Next week: Where Time Touches Eternity


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.