Some years ago, in the months before my dad died, I read Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. I love his writing, and this was no exception. Despite all the violence and love and adventure in the story, it was a relatively quiet and unassuming line that stopped me in my tracks across the pages. In the middle of a narrative of rebellion and revenge, he wrote:
“In history there are no control groups. There is no one to tell us what might have been. We weep over the might have been, but there is no might have been. There never was.”
I don’t know why this grabbed me the way it did, but in my mind I returned again and again to this matter-of-fact big life lesson: there is no control group that holds steady throughout change to tell me what could have gone differently in my life. I have no idea what might have been at any point in my life, I only know what was and is.
The concept of having no control group helped me a lot when my dad died. From that first moment of realizing what my mom was telling me, I camped out in the reality of the present: this enormity had happened, I had no way of changing it, and there was no use thinking otherwise. What was, was, and that was where I was going to work from. I had the feeling that somehow the world had nudged McCarthy’s phrase toward me just in time for me to desperately need it.
I thought I was pretty well off in grasping this concept. But in the years since then, a comparative might-have-been has slowly but surely slipped into my perception and coloured my understanding of myself, my past, and my place in life. I’m starting to see that as I drag myself toward 30, I’m dragging along with me a heavy sense of loss and longing for the life I didn’t get to have but dreamt of as a teenager and early twenty-something. More or less, the life where I got to feel in any way happy and beautiful and confident and alive. Unlike losing my dad, unhappiness in my life wasn’t a sudden event clearly beyond my control – my life had been under my control all along and in hindsight its unfulfilling reality was full of alternatives.
Without realizing it, I engaged in a comparison between real past-me and might-have-been past-me and I wasn’t able to catch it in time to prevent the havoc that unsubstantiated comparisons can wreak on your sense of self. The game is obviously rigged here, since real-me only knew what she knew but might-have-been-me gets the benefit of everything I know ten years on. My understanding of what would have made me happy in the past has been overlayed with the things I wish now that I had done then. As feelings of missed opportunity and lost youth weigh me down, I wish for my past self that I’d had that handsome moody boyfriend and gone somewhere else to teach English and really bonded with close friends. What my actual past self did pales in comparison – that’s what brought me to here, wishing I’d done some things differently. It’s not that I want these things for me in the present, but a part of me wishes I already had them so maybe now I wouldn’t feel like I missed out on life then.
If I examine it, I notice this life I wish I’d had is shaped by feeling lost and lonely at the time and feeling unaccomplished and under-experienced now. This might-have-been life is filled in with details that look suspiciously like a collage of movie scenes and my take on other people’s experiences. I see a young couple playing on a park bench and my heart wishes so much I’d had that youthful puppy-dog love. Or someone out of college tells me they’re going to another country to build schools and my heart wishes I’d gone on this life-changing experience too.
I’ve struggled to find my way out of these feelings. They feel bad, often non-sensical, and I don’t want them to get space inside me. And a few weeks ago, a friend unknowingly put up a small exit sign for me. She said: “You know, all these life things I expected to have and was so sad for so long when I didn’t get them…I can see now that it doesn’t matter because I wouldn’t have been happy with them anyways.”
This seemed important. It put real-me smack in the middle of might-have-been-me’s comparative life. So I asked myself: Would I – the real me, just as I was – have been happy with a moody high school boyfriend, and was I ever the type to make doe-eyes on a park bench? Well…no, to both. When I think about it that way, a little part of me pushes back with all its might against the tyranny of might-have-been. This part remembers the real past-me feeling like no matter how lonely I was, I didn’t know someone I actually wanted to date, and thinking white people going to volunteer en masse in low-income countries for “the experience” was ethically questionable at best.
It seems like in leaving the real past-me out of my longing for that might-have-been life, I glossed over the fact that I didn’t have a lot of these things precisely because I didn’t want them. And by stamping a TOO-LATE label on them I’m side-stepping the other question: Do I – the real me, just as I am – want these things now? For most of these ideas, the answer is probably no.
There is no control group for life, no way to gauge the alternative to what was. But comparisons inevitably sneak in, and when they do I will have to deal with them: the real me got what she got and was how she was, and that’s a done deal. If there is anything I long for for her, tough luck. Her choices stand. But if there’s anything I long for right here and now for ME? That is where I can actually get somewhere.