What If You Could Do It All Over? – The New Yorker

A whole art formthe novelhas been dedicated to exploring this dynamic. Novelists often show us people who, trapped by circumstances, struggle to live their real lives. Such a struggle can be Escher-like; a real life is one in which a person no longer yearns to find herself, and yet the work of finding oneself is itself a source of meaning. In Tolstoys Anna Karenina, Anna, caught in a boring marriage, destroys her life in an attempt to build a more passionate, authentic one with Count Vronsky. All the while, Levin, the novels other hero, is so confused about how to live that he longs for the kind of boring, automatic life that Anna left behind. Part of the work of being a modern person seems to be dreaming of alternate lives in which you dont have to dream of alternate lives. We long to stop longing, but we also wring purpose from that desire.

An unled life sounds like one we might wish to leadshoulda, coulda, woulda. But, while Im conscious of my unlived lives, I dont wish to have led one. In fact, as the father of a two-year-old, I find the prospect frightening. In Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, the philosopher Kieran Setiya points out that, thanks to the butterfly effect, even minor alterations to our pasts would likely have major effects on our presents. If Id done things just a little bit differently, my son might not exist. Perhaps, in a different life, Id have a different wife and child. But I love these particular people; I dont want alternative ones.

I find it easier to imagine different lives for others. My mother grew up in Malaysia, then immigrated to America in the nineteen-seventies, as a college student. In her new country, she went to rock concerts, poetry readings, and law school, becoming an attorney with a distinguished career and achieving the kind of life shed imagined back home. Even so, she was never really happy; she and my father divorced, and she struggled with depression and loneliness. When I was a teen-ager, we visited Malaysia together. I was astonished to find that the island where shed spent her childhood was a tropical paradise. Her many cousins and old friends were overjoyed to see her; eating the food, her face lit up. We spent a day with a high-school boyfriend of hers, who ran a small factory (it made refrigerator magnets, as I recall); globalization was transforming the country and raising the standard of living. Would my mother have found contentment if shed forgone the immigrant struggle? Thinking that she might have, I didnt worry that, if shed lived this alternate life, I wouldnt exist.

My mother was young when she moved across the world; once were rooted in adulthood, even much smaller shifts can seem inconceivable. My lawyer friend, who has a wife and two children, hates his job and is always talking about leaving it so that he can pursue an entirely different profession, but he simply cant figure out how to make the switch. I feel for him. Having clambered up his ladder, he wont easily get down. But I also want to tell him what Jean-Paul Sartre said about the allure of imaginary lives:

A man commits himself and draws his own portrait, outside of which there is nothing. No doubt this thought may seem harsh.... But on the other hand, it helps people to understand that reality alone counts, and that dreams, expectations, and hopes only serve to define a man as a broken dream, aborted hopes, and futile expectations.

Sartre thought we should focus on what we have done and will do, rather than on what we might have done or could do. He pointed out that we often take too narrow a census of our actions. An artist, he maintains, is not to be judged solely by his works of art, for a thousand other things also help to define him. We do more than we give ourselves credit for; our real lives are richer than we think. This is why, if you keep a diary, you may feel more satisfied with the life you live.

And yet you may still wonder at the particular shape of that life; all stories have turning points, and its hard not to fixate on them. Sartre advanced those ideas in a lecture called Existentialism Is a Humanism, which he delivered in Paris in 1945, when he was only locally famous. On arriving at the venue, he discovered that he would have to push through a brawling crowd that had gathered in a sort of mini-riot. (Probably some communists demonstrating against me, he speculated, according to Annie Cohen-Solals Sartre: A Life.) He considered leaving the event but then decided to press on, spending fifteen minutes making his way to the front, receiving a few kicks and blows along the way. The lecture was a sensation and made Sartre an international superstar. That might not have happened if hed decided, reasonably, to leave.

Like facets in a jewel, such moments seem to put our lives into prismatic relief. They make us feel the precariousness and the specificity of the way things are. In The Post-Birthday World, Lionel Shriver builds a whole novel around this conceit: its chapters alternate between two time lines, one in which Irina, its protagonist, didnt kiss her husbands friend, and another in which she did. (In the first time line, she often thinks back on the moment of the almost-kissan instant when her happy life hung in the balance.) The same essential premise animates countless popular narratives, from rom-coms like Sliding Doors to sci-fi series like Devs. And yet the premise is irrational: in truth, our lives have infinite facets, and, for any given outcome, the turning points we isolate are necessary but not sufficient. The butterfly effect works in reverse: Sartre had to give his lecture, and my wife had to step into my elevator not just once but twice, and yet many other, unremembered things also had to happenin fact, everything had to go a certain way.

Often, these stories serve a didactic purpose; they provoke thoughts that bind us to our lives. They suggest that we should be grateful for whats actualthat we should sink deeper into the life we have, rather than dreaming of the lives we dont. But my mother, being unhappy, and restless by nature, thought often of her unled lives. Sometimes she seemed lost in them, or misled by them. She dreamed, in particular, of quitting her job and running a farm stand. And so, the summer after I graduated from college, she moved out of the D.C. suburbs and into a remote little house in the Virginia countryside, two hours away, near the Blue Ridge.

It was a second emigration. Her commute was punishing; unsettled and lonely, she grew isolated and drank too much. A few years later, she had a profoundly disabling stroke. Little of the person she was remains. Today, she lives in a nursing home, where, strangely, she seems content. Not long after the stroke, I made one last visit to her house, to clear it out before it sold. I took a photo of her vegetable garden, gone to seedthe closest she ever came to living the life shed pictured.

What we could have, should have, or would have donethese kinds of thoughts follow an if-then logic. But were also drawn to alternative selves that hover on the edge of sense. Miller recounts how, when the musician Melissa Etheridge and her partner decided to have children, they faced a decision: for their sperm donor, they considered one of two friends, David Crosby or Brad Pitt. They chose Crosby. My teen-agers now are, like, I could have had Brad Pitt, Etheridge later said. I couldve been amazingly handsome. Miller shares a joke recorded by the philosopher Ted Cohen, about a man named Lev: If I were the Czar, I would be richer than the Czar, Lev tells a friend. How could that be? the friend asks. Well, Lev says, if I were the Czar, on the side I would give Hebrew lessons. If Im the Czar, or Brad Pitts son, am I still me? The idea that I, myself, could also be someone else seems to exploit a loophole in language. The words make a sentence without making sense. And yet the senselessness of the wish to be someone else may be part of the wish. We want the world to be more porous and lambent than it is.

Miller quotes the poem Veracruz, by George Stanley, in full. It opens by the sea in Mexico, where Stanley is walking on an esplanade. He thinks of how his father once walked on a similar esplanade in Cuba. Step by step, he imagines alternative lives for his father and for himself. What if his dad had moved to San Francisco and married/not my mother, but her brother, whom he truly loved? What if his father had transformed himself into a woman, and Stanley had been the child of his father and his uncle? Maybe he would have been born female, and grown up in San Francisco as a girl,/a tall, serious girl. If all that had happened, then today, walking by the sea in Mexico, he might be able to meet a sailor, have an affair, and give birth at last to my sonthe boy/I love.

Veracruz reminds me of the people I know who believe in past lives, and of stories like the one David Lynch tells in Twin Peaks, in which people seem to step between alternate lives without knowing it. Such stories satisfy us deeply because they reconcile contrary ideas we have about ourselves and our souls. On the one hand, we understand that we could have turned out any number of ways; we know that we arent the only possible versions of ourselves. But, on the other, we feel that there is some fundamental light within usa filament that burns, with its own special character, from birth to death. We want to think that, whoever we might have been, we would have burned with the same light. At the end of Veracruz, the poet comes home to the same son. Its as though my mother became a different kind of person, finding happiness in her garden while she could; and I, having moved to San Francisco, became a coder with a business plan and a head full of algorithms; and still, when our eyes met over Skype, we were us.

This vision seems impossible. As Sartre says, we are who we are. But isnt the negative space in a portrait part of that portrait? In the sense that our unled lives have been imagined by us, and are part of us, they are real; to know what someone isntwhat she might have been, what shes dreamed of beingthis is to know someone intimately. When we first meet people, we know them as they are, but, with time, we perceive the auras of possibility that surround them. Miller describes the emotion this experience evokes as beauty and heartbreak together.

The novel I think of whenever I have this feeling is Virginia Woolfs To the Lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay, its central character, is the mother of eight children; the linchpin of her family, she is immersed in the practicalities of her crowded, communal life. Still, even as she attends to the particularsthe mornings excursion, the evenings dinnershe senses that they are only placeholders, or handles with which she can grasp something bigger. The details of life seem to her both worthy of attention and somehow arbitrary; the meaning of the whole feels tied up in its elusiveness. One night, she is sitting at dinner, surrounded by her children and her guests. She listens to her husband talking about poetry and philosophy; she watches her children whisper some private joke. (She cant know that two of them will die: a daughter in childbirth, a son in the First World War.)Then she softens her focus. She looked at the window in which the candle flames burnt brighter now that the panes were black, Woolf writes, and looking at that outside the voices came to her very strangely, as if they were voices at a service in a cathedral. In this inner quiet, lines of poetry sound:

And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to beAre full of trees and changing leaves.

Mrs. Ramsay isnt quite sure what these lines mean, and doesnt know if she invented them, has just heard them, or is remembering them. Still, Woolf writes, like music, the words seemed to be spoken by her own voice, outside her self, saying quite easily and naturally what had been in her mind the whole evening while she said different things. We all dwell in the here and now; we all have actual selves, actual lives. But what are they? Selves and lives have penumbras and possibilitiesthats whats unique about them. They are always changing, and so are always new; they refuse to stand still. We live in anticipation of their meaning, which will inevitably exceed what can be known or said. Much must be left unsaid, unseen, unlived.

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What If You Could Do It All Over? - The New Yorker

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