Why It's Useless To Wonder About the Life You Never Had

The truth is that we'll never know where our unled lives could've led us and the people we could've become — and that's probably for the best.

Do you ever think about the person you could've become if you started your life over and made wildly different decisions throughout?

I've played that game many times.

If my parents hadn't won the green card lottery and decided to move to the United States in 1999, I would have grown up in Bulgaria. I probably wouldn't have become a journalist, most likely wouldn't be working on a newsletter full-time, and our paths, dear reader, definitely wouldn't have crossed.

In a recent feature titled What If You Could Do It All Over, Joshua Rothman writes, "Swept up in our real lives, we quickly forget about the unreal ones." What would the alternate non-journalist, Bulgarian-living Polina think about the real one living in the U.S. today?

It's easy — and almost alluring — to go down this spiral. What if you hadn't gone to college? What if you had spent an adventurous year backpacking through Europe in your early 20s? What if you had married your high school sweetheart instead of your current spouse? What if, what if, what if?

The endless forks in the road that you took (and didn't) are the reason you are reading the words on this page today. It's because you chose certain things in lieu of other things, you turned left instead of right, and you happened to click on something that led you to be here in this exact moment.

It's fun to go down this rabbit hole, but we can get ourselves into trouble when we begin to dwell on the possibility of our alternate reality if only we had made a different decision.

Edith Eva Eger was 16 years old when her family was taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. After getting off the train, she joined a "selection line" alongside her mom and sister. When they got to the front of the line, Josef Mengele (also known as "the Angel of Death") would decide their fate. Her mom was standing in-between Eger and her sister. Mengele asked: “Is she your sister, or is she your mother?”

"I never could forgive myself, and I said, 'Mother,'" Eger says. "She was sent to the other side, and I followed her. He came and grabbed me and told me, 'Your mother is just going to take a shower. You’re going to see her very soon,' and promptly threw me on the other side."

Her mom was sent to the gas chamber that day. Eger spent years blaming herself for her mother's death. "If I had said she was my sister, she would have been sent with me but instead, she was sent to the gas chamber," she says. "I had so much survivor's guilt about this moment."

Over the years, though, Eger realized that to run away from the past or to fight against the present are both ways we imprison ourselves. Freedom, she says, lies in accepting and forgiving our former selves.

“I can’t heal you – or anyone – but I can celebrate your choice to dismantle the prison in your mind, brick by brick," she writes. "You can’t change what happened, you can’t change what you did or what was done to you. But you can choose how you live now.”

We let our imaginations run wild with endless possibilities, some of which keep us prisoners of the past and others that allow us to be thankful for our lives today.

All we have is this present moment. Physicist Stephen Hawking once reminded us, “The past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.”

And here's the mind-blowing revelation I recently had: No matter your situation at this present moment, you can choose to see it in a new light.

Robert Hoge was born with a tumor in the middle of his face and two severely mangled legs. Doctors suspected an anti-depressant his mother took when she was pregnant might have caused Hoge's birth defects. When a reporter asked him if he could go back in time and tell his mother not to take the anti-depressants, would he do it?

His answer is a resounding no. "I have a good life. I’m happy, I’m healthy. I've got a wonderful wife, two wonderful daughters. And the other life I would have had might have been wonderful in many different ways, but it would not have been this life, and I'm pretty happy with this life," he says. Hoge has made peace with the choices of the past, and he doesn't waste time playing the anxiety-inducing game of "what if."

When you fall into such a spiral, remind yourself of this Wait But Why graphic, and focus on the green lines rather than the black:

The truth is that we'll never know where our unled lives could've led us and the people we could've become — and that's probably for the best.

Nat Sharpe on Twitter put it perfectly: "There are thousands of lives you could live. And be perfectly happy in each one."


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