The Midnight Library And The Lives We Left Unlived

I started reading (okay, fine, listening to) a new book today, now that I have finished The Gifts of Imperfection. This book is a novel by Matt Haig entitled The Midnight Library. My sister mentioned it in passing twice last week and seemed so taken by it I decided to go ahead and get on the bandwagon. I also jumped on the Wordle bandwagon yesterday, but that matters not at this point. In any case, I’m a few hours into this damn book, and my mind is in classic overthink mode. This means it is a meaty story.

The Midnight Library is about a woman named Nora Seed who, feeling lost and depressed about her life, decides she no longer wants to live. She takes some pills and washes them down with wine. She drifts off and ends up at a library. The librarian, a woman Nora knew from her childhood, shows her a book filled with Nora’s life regrets and tells her she can go to any of a million different iterations of places her life might have led had she made different choices. She simply needs to select a regret and she will be transported to that divergent life, already in progress. The books allow Nora to answer the age old question “what if.”

It has taken me a long time and a lot of therapy to land at a place where I no longer abuse myself over my “what if” regrets. I’ve discussed that here before. Your what ifs are impossible because in the past you made choices based on who you were at that time using information you had available to you at that time. Looking back now, with a different mind and different experiences, alters the light you shine on those past events, people, and opportunities you let slip away. It makes them either shinier and more attractive or duller and less attractive but, either way, your current consciousness transforms them into something they are not. All of this makes our regrets like our worries…thinking about them will give you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.

I am curious to see where Nora lands after exploring these alternate-ending lives. If she finds a better existence for herself or if she decides to go back to her old life or if she dies from her overdose as she had originally intended. But all this thinking about disparate endings to our one (as far as we know it) life has me stuck on one thought. We can’t go back and change our past, which has led us to our present. We are, for better or worse, here where we’ve arrived as the result of millions of small, insignificant choices and a few quite large ones. Our story, thus far, has already been written. It’s the future that has yet to be determined. In some cases, our what ifs might still be able to come to fruition if we take steps in that direction today. We just have to find the courage to believe we can change the outcome. If we couldn’t do it in our past, perhaps we can now.

And while I noodle on what I want my life outcome to appear, for as much control as I have over it, please don’t comment here about the book if you have finished it. I will likely finish it tomorrow, and we can talk about it then. I look forward to it.

It’s The What Ifs That Will Ruin You

“I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.” ~Lewis Carroll

Spinning in a cycle of what ifs is like riding a merry-go-round

There is a show starting on television next week called Ordinary Joe. This is how the network describes it: “Life is all about the choices you make – and sometimes, what you do in a single moment can change everything.” In a preview for the show, we hear Joe’s voice say, “It’s only natural to wonder, What if?” We all have asked ourselves at one point or another how our life might have been different if we’d made a different choice. What if we’d pursued medicine like we wanted to instead of settling for an easier career path? What if we’d given that one boyfriend a second chance? What if we’d decided not to have children? There are a million what ifs any one person could come up with relating to their life. Let’s face it. All the what ifs we conjure up are infinitely more glamorous and desirable than our current reality because we’re dreaming, and that is the nature of dreams.

Most of my what ifs have centered around “what if I had realized earlier that the stories I had been told about myself as a child were just stories and not at all true reflections of who I was on the inside? What if I had grown up feeling loved, secure, and lovable, rather than alone, fearful, and unlovable?” These what if thoughts, in particular, have really done a number on me. They’ve taken the past I was handed and made it heavier than it already was. So, in addition to carrying around the mental weight of the trauma I endured, I was annoyed that I didn’t figure out until well into my mid-40s that there was trauma in the first place.

I’ve been thinking about this since I first saw the preview for Ordinary Joe. Here is what I have decided: what ifs may be natural, but they are not at all useful. When we make a decision, we are making it with the only skills we have at that time. Whatever knowledge or experience we’ve acquired up to that point figures into our choice. We couldn’t have done better for ourselves in the past because in the past we weren’t who we are now. When we think what if, we are imagining for ourselves in the past using our present experiences and mindset. We didn’t have our present knowledge and experience back then and, therefore, would likely have made the same choice we already made. There is no better outcome. We are where we are now because of where we were then. If you’re taking time to imagine what ifs with a more positive outcome, you’re basically in a fantasy. And while imagining a different, potentially more positive outcome (because who here wants to imagine a worse outcome) might be the kind of fantasy in which we would like to indulge, it’s only hurting us because it’s keeping us from accepting our present with gratitude.

When we focus on what ifs, we are focusing on two things that don’t matter. The past is over and done with, and we can’t unring that bell. And the future is guaranteed to no one, so dreaming what our future might look like is wasting the only time we know we have, which is happening right now while we remove ourselves from it.

I’ve decided it’s time to stop beating myself up over a past I wish could have been different. It couldn’t have been. I was who I was and I made the only choices I was capable of making given the reality I knew. It wasn’t until I understood my reality was skewed that I could do better for myself. So, I am going to try to stay in my present and appreciate what is rather than wondering about what ifs from my past or dreaming about what ifs for my future. We all have made choices we wonder about now, but that is a waste of precious time in the current moment. Maybe if we spent more time focusing on now, we wouldn’t be so concerned about mentally rewriting our past or dreaming about a future we are not guaranteed. We are perfect the way we are, and who we are right now in this moment is all we are called to be. Everything else is just noise.