POSTED: May 1, 2021
Lately I have spent a bit of time reflecting on the idea of What If? It is that notion of the choice when we are at that fork in the road. In some cases, the concept is making us reflect on whether our past choices were the right ones, congratulating us on the good choices we made, or challenging us to move bravely forward with a new initiative.
What if exists in all three tenses. What if I had chosen to join the circus, what if I go back to university today, and what if I have a stroke in the future? But it is largely a decision linked to future consequences, whether looking back to when a decision was made or looking forward from making a decision today. The decision to do something or not do something is linked to the results that come from that decision. I wish I had known this in high school.
It is also a notion that can be applied equally by optimists or pessimists – What if I get cancer in the future, or what if they find a cure for my cancer soon?
Young people have more future based what if questions, older people have a disproportionate number of backward-looking questions about other paths they might have chosen.
When touring about I like to take photos of street art, graffiti, and signs as they often are simple yet profound statements or homilies that make us take pause and think about the topic. Like most good poetry they have usually been reduced to the essential elements without a lot of extra chatter.
The image shown here is one that I saw in Vancouver. It captures that notion of What if fairly well. We all have the chance to change and evolve and if we don’t like elements of what we are, well -change them. Looking back at our mistakes or bad decisions, can either eat us up, or be a helpful tool to inform where we might go or how we might evolve for the better.
There is a woman who lives on a really small keelboat a couple of slips over. I don’t know her very well, but she was telling me one day when she came over to sign up for a cooking class that she runs marathons. I have seen her going out for runs and it always surprised me. She has one of those stocky builds that is not the physique of the traditional whisper thin, taut long-distance runner.
One day many years ago she was pretty stressed from work, and decided that running would be a good way to both build up her tolerance for the stress and to potentially drop some weight. Well since that time she has worked up her performance to competing in marathons in Boston, London, Berlin and lots of other big name races. She is largely the same shape and weight but incredibly fit and able to deal with the stresses and rigors of life much better.
Similarly, Janice, who had been home raising the kids while Jim was raising hell in the investment world, decided to go back to school. She had started life as a fashion designer after studying that at college. She and Jim worked at her fashion line together in fact. But working six to seven days per week when Jim was also exceedingly career focused was just not compatible with raising kids so she reluctantly gave up her fashion baby when she had her first real one. By the time the kids were well into high school, and Jim was home, having retired early, she went back to university to pursue a degree in fine art. She had always been an artist but was a bit insecure about it and wanted to increase her depth of knowledge and perfect her studio techniques. It was also something of a personal test for herself. When she came out of high school and went to fashion college she did not choose the university route so pursuing a BFA in middle age was also an adventure and a challenge.
Beyond doing well with it and getting a strong fine art career going, in the academic side of the program she learned that she loved to write. That led to a certificate program in creative writing and poetry at the University of Toronto. The poetry interest really took hold and in her late fifties she decided to enroll in a graduate program – an MFA program in creative writing and poetry at the University of British Columbia. She completed the program a few years ago, when most people her age are thinking of retirement.
It reminded me of a conversation on the topic with one of my aunts. She did not have kids and as I was her only nephew we were quite close. She liked to share with me her life experiences and what she had learned over the years. One day when I was a teenager and almost ready for university myself but considering taking a year or two off before going that route, she told me of a friend of hers who was about her age and who had just been accepted to study engineering. Of course I was shocked and asked how old this guy would be when he finished. “The same age he will be if he does not go” was her wise response.
When I started jotting down these thoughts I was also quite dismissive of the people we all know who live in the dream world extreme variation of What if. These are the people who fantasize about winning the lottery or moving back in time. But even for them the concept has its applications. If the first thing you would do after winning a lottery is to quit your job, well perhaps you should consider what line of work you should be changing to and take action on that – not on buying lottery tickets.
Some things are not the big initiatives I have been chattering on about here. They may be the seemingly simple goal of being a better friend, having more tolerance, or thinking from a broader perspective. Sometimes these simple things however are tougher than learning to run a marathon.
I think all of these reflections, both negative or positive, and whether looking back in time or dreaming forward are all good. They are healthy ways to us to test what is important to us today and to ask ourselves the real key question: What if today I …..