Saturday, July 25, 2020

#207 / The Path Not Taken


"My only regret in life," said Woody Allen, "is that I am not someone else."

I have mentioned this Woody Allen-identified regret before, in a posting I called, "Where Did I Go Wrong?" I got the Woody Allen quote from a book review that appeared in the June 27 - 28, 2020, edition of The Wall Street Journal. The review is titled, "Down the Path Not Taken," and the book under review is titled, On Not Being Someone Else, by Andrew H. Miller. Miller is a professor of English at Johns Hopkins University.

The review, and I gather the book, asks whether "regret" is really the right name for a feeling that our life would have been better had we only gone down that "path not taken." Maybe, it is suggested, "envy" is a better name for the feeling being discussed. That puts a less charitable light on the sentiment. No one thinks that "envy" is a very nice thing. 

Since I haven't read the book (only the review), it is not clear to me whether or not Miller comes down decisively on how best to characterize the "where did I go wrong?" feeling. It looks to me like he just discusses the topic, without resolving the nature of the feeling he discusses. If so, that suggests to me that he has writtten a helpful book, since the "truth" of anything is never one thing or another. At least, that's my view. 

During my time of political speeches (I have made quite a few, in my time), I used to discuss the nature of "choice," urging upon my audiences the idea that we do need to understand that we have various options, and that all of them have attractive features, but that we have to "choose." I was generally talking about deciding whether or not to protect prime agricultural land, or otherwise to control the path of future community development, but I used to put it this way: "You can't be both a brain surgeon and a ballerina." Both of these professions are, of course, extremely worthy, both require incredible dedication and the development of amazing and intricate skills. However, one person probably cannot master both disciplines. You have to choose!

The topic being discussed in On Not Being Someone Else is related, but different. Sooner or later, though we may have disguised it from ourself, we come to realize that we have, in fact, made choices, and that these choices have defined us, and our lives, and that since our lives are finite, what we chose to do has determined "who we are." It may be "regret," as Woody Allen says, or it may be "envy" of those who chose something different, but we can't be "someone else." We are stuck with with the person we chose to be. One path went one way. One path went another. 

You can't be both a brain surgeon and a ballerina. 

Given this inescapable reality, I do think what we need to consider is whether we can celebrate the life we have led, or whether we must come, at the end, to regret or reject it, envying others who made the choices that we now think would have better for us. 

I refer anyone who is thinking about these things to what I said in that earlier blog posting

If we are trying to base a self-evaluation on a self-created hypothetical about what we were "supposed" to do, we are almost always going to come up short. That is because "possibility," my favorite category, is literally infinite, and our personal capacities, of course, are not. Within the world we most immediately inhabit, everything is "possible," though not simultaneously, and if our freedom to choose has led us to do and accomplish some things, and not others, we have not "failed" to do the things we have not done, we have just not done those things, and have done other things, instead. I don't much like the expression, but it does have some applicability in this context: "It's all good." 
To me, at least, an inclination to be grateful for the life we have lived is a very potent antidote to the "angst" about all the things we haven't done, or didn't do. That antidote to a sense of personal angst and crisis works for both men and women, and it works in late and middle age, and it even works for young people, too.

Ungrudging gratitude for the gift of our lives. That's what I am recommending!

Brain Surgeon

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