Posted by: scintillatingspeck | October 22, 2012

Lifetimes that won’t be lived.

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.  Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.  The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia.  Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton.  We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people.  In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.        -Richard Dawkins

There are many lifetimes that I won’t have.  Lifetimes, you say?  Since when do you have more than one?  Right.  I only have one.  This means there are thousands of mutually-exclusive paths that my life could have followed, but didn’t.  Those are the lifetimes that won’t see the light of day.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m profoundly grateful for the one life I do have.  It’s sufficient.  It’s a miracle.  Still, who could I have become, what adventures could I have had, what lessons could I have learned, if every path could have been followed?  Maybe they are being followed right now in some parallel universe?

What if I had never had a child?  What would my life be like?  Would I have thrown myself more deeply into the notion of a “career,” or would I have felt more free to change my mind continually about my living arrangements?  Would I have felt bereft and incomplete, or glad that I had not introduced a child to this insane world?  What about all the eggs in my body that will never become people?  What people could they have been?

What if, in the mid to late ’90s, I had decided to get a PhD?  I seriously considered it, then decided I valued more balance in my life.  What if I had become a professor, written books and articles, taught courses, immersed myself in scholarly life?  I ended up getting two master’s degrees instead, working in social science research, and becoming an academic reference librarian, so I hardly shunned academia- it was home.  Until it wasn’t home anymore.  Would I have reached the same breaking point?  Sooner?  Later?

What if I had never gotten married, or married someone else?  What if my many foregone lifetimes included many, many other spouses or lovers?  What kinds of relationships would they have been?  What aspects might have been worse or better?  Who were those people that I could have known so intimately, but didn’t?

And what of the friends I will never have?  Or the friendships that I do have, but might never deepen, might never flourish with time?  Facebook in particular keeps bringing me to these questions; I have “friends” on Facebook that I have never met in person, but we are nevertheless linked by undeniable bonds of shared interests and sentiments.  To catch a glimpse of the extended network of friendship across thousands of miles is astonishing.  I would almost certainly never have known these people without the internet.  At what cost, though, do we maintain these far-flung connections while potentially neglecting the neighbors around us?  Once upon a time, the members of one’s tribe or village and immediately surrounding communities were the extent of most people’s social connections, which came with distinct benefits and drawbacks.  In another lifetime, might I have chosen to ditch the mainstream completely and live in some tiny, remote community, incognito to industrial civilization?  Would I have eventually chafed at the restrictions?  Would I have felt utterly liberated?

What if I had rearranged my life sufficiently to be able to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine?

What if I had been more serious about writing?  Where are the volumes of poetry and essays?  What of younger dreams of becoming a magician, a folk-singer, an actor?  What if I had picked up the various threads in my life that might have led me to becoming a healer?  I was a nursing student for a time; considered medical school; thought for a while that I would work with psychiatric patients; finally walked away from that whole scene because I was too demoralized by the medical system.  What if I had become a sex educator?  When I decided to get a master’s degree in library science, I was trying to decide between that and a master’s degree in public health, with a focus on sexuality.  What if I had pursued herbalism more seriously?  What if I had not stopped at becoming a wilderness first responder, and went on to become a wilderness EMT?  Where could that have taken me?

What if I had taken my thesis (from my first master’s degree program in gender/cultural studies), a study of a 19th-century free lover and anarchist from Massachusetts named Angela Heywood, and followed my dream to undertake much more primary research and find her descendents, find out what happened to her, find her grave?

There are no answers to these questions, of course.  They hang in the air like empty picture frames.

The more pressing question, no doubt, is how will I live out the remainder of my one scintillating speck of a life?



  1. Coming off my 31st anniversary, I marvel at how random and contingent it was that I got together with Bill, which was a consequence of staying in a fairly mismatched relationship, for fairly unworthy reasons.
    But I can’t regret a minute of it, now, can I? It’s who I was, and what I felt like I needed. But if not Bill, who would I have wound up with, where, and why? I fell into Slate’s on my way to meet him for dinner at his job–what other plan would I have made or found? There would be music and books in my life, clearly, but what and who else?
    I am happy that you have husband, child, home, community and all; I don’t think you’ll stop wondering, though, about the roads not taken.

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