Woulda Coulda Shoulda – Didn’t – So What?

In “A Perfect World” , a movie filled with regret and foreboding, Butch Haynes tells the little boy that he has kidnapped, that the car they are riding in is a twentieth century time machine: ahead lies the future, behind is the past, but in the car itself there is only the present, the now, the place where  living actually happens.

It seems to me that the importance of the now is something that I too easily lose sight of.

I am seldom a “Right Here! Right Now!” kind of person. I grew up as a delayed-gratification, my-future’s-so-bright-I-gotta-wear-shades sort of person and I’m in danger of becoming a “woulda,coulda,shoulda,” revisionist, revisiting the paths not taken and projecting myself to a different future.

I understand that life is full of “Sliding Doors” moments when circumstances shift the course of our lives in ways we will never be aware of. There’s nothing I can do about it. As Dilbert once said, “Shift happens”.

I tend towards the many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics that says that, with each decision I take, another world is created. In this view of the multiverse, wave functions don’t collapse to one or zero, they simply branch off into another world. This turns reality into the ultimate massive multiplayer game; every decision that anybody takes causes a world to branch off.

Some of those branching points are easy to see: in my reality, I put in a final burst of effort when I got caught by the under-tow off the coast of Ireland and made it to the shore. In another reality, I gave up and drowned. In my reality I declined the offer to go to a seminary to train as a priest, in another world I took vows that I later broke. In my reality, when the rear tyre of my motorbike blew out on the motorway a police car was behind me and protected me from traffic, in another world, I lost my left leg below the knee. What is harder to imagine is that EVERY decision could be causing a branching to another world.

The appeal of MWI is that it allows the reconciliation of non-deterministic and deterministic views of the world. It means that my past appears to roll our behind me as a consistent history while my future offers an almost infinite set of possibilities.

In “The Ghost”, Robert Harris’ main character takes a MWI view of writing a book. He says:

 “A book unwritten is a delightful universe of infinite possibilities. Set down one word, however, and immediately it becomes earth-bound. Set down one sentence and it’s halfway to becoming just like every other bloody book that’s ever been written. But the best must never be allowed to drive out the good. In the absence of genius there is always craftsmanship. One can at least try to write something which will arrest the reader’s attention – which will encourage them, after reading the first paragraph, to take a look at the second, and then the third.”

Sometimes it’s tempting to imagine that I could press CTRL Z  and undo paragraphs or even whole chapters in my history. I  find myself searching for that point where, if I’d taken a different path, I’d have been a better person, I’d have made those around me happier, I’d have avoided some of the decisions that showed me the nasty little shit I’m capable of being.

Of course these reflections have the appeal of The Mirror of ERISED in Harry Potter; it shows us what we desire without having to achieve it in reality.

But  there is no CTRL Z and I refuse to be a version of Terry Malloy from “On The Waterfront” a broken man haunted by the fact that “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

At one time, I would have said that I want to look forward, to see the possible paths facing me and choose between them, to navigate my life.

These days, that idea is less attractive to me. I know I have some larger decisions to make: which country to live in, how to provide for my wife and myself in our old age, how long to continue in a job meant for a someone younger and stronger, but I feel, deep in my bones, that these are not the decisions that will matter. When I look back on my story, I am convinced that what will make me smile are the memories of moments seized right-here right-now to do the things that make me and others happy.

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