This sentence comes from a wonderful book that I have just read, Early Work by Andrew Martin. The sentiment feeds into something that I frequently consider and question – and most especially since coming to NYC – what might my life have been like if I had made different decisions at various metaphorical forks?

Such speculation is pretty pointless. It also assumes that as individuals we control our destiny, a questionable assumption.

Nonetheless, such speculation is also hard to resist.

It reminds me of the many times my daughter at an early age would repeatedly ask, “what if…?”, as she wondered about other possibilities and outcomes.

Robert Frost’s seminal poem The Road Not Taken, is of course responsible for my constant ruminations on decisions I have made, choices that with the benefit of hindsight I am tempted to question:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler…”

The poem continues:

“I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

I often reflect on some of my big life choices – doing medicine, leaving clinical medicine – as well as many of the less impactful ones that I make every day. Mostly, I am pretty ok with where I have arrived, thanks to these decisions as well as to my post hoc questioning, which undoubtedly influenced subsequent paths.

I was listening to Larkin Poe’s Ain’t Gonna Cry yesterday:

“What is my mission?

Why am I swimmin’

In the dirty water

Of a bad decision?”

I have reached a point where regrets about choices and decisions feel like a waste of time. Clean water is not that difficult to find, if you truly do want to find it.

Billy Collins poem, I Go Back To The House For A Book, explores the notion of the unlived life:

“I turn around on the gravel
and go back to the house for a book,
something to read at the doctor’s office,
and while I am inside, running the finger
of inquisition along a shelf,
another me that did not bother
to go back to the house for a book
heads out on his own,
rolls down the driveway,
and swings left toward town,
a ghost in his ghost car,
another knot in the string of time,
a good three minutes ahead of me—
a spacing that will now continue
for the rest of my life.”

We all potentially have many unlived lives. What is more certain, though, is the fact of this current one. I have always had the sense that I was born in the middle of someone else’s story. Even if there might be a truth in this, it doesn’t mean that I cannot shape what I now have.

Mostly, we judge our choices and decisions from a different place and time. We are also different people now to then, even if then was only yesterday.

The what-ifs, the could-haves, the near-misses… such speculation is best reserved for dinner-party fun. And the fun is inextricably linked to the realisation of the impossibility of ever knowing. Life leads you, if you allow it, to a place where a not-knowing is actually not so scary.

It is worth remembering too, that even if we might now, given the chance, do things differently, might make different choices today, every decision and action we make moulds and shapes us into who we are.

I love this, from Dani Shapiro’s The Hourglass:

“Let me fall if I must fall.

The one I will become will catch me.”