A friend and I were talking about what we would do if we could escape from work for a year: a year in Provence, a year in West Cork, a year in the Scottish Highlands.  We would probably end up doing some of the same things that we do at work, we concluded.  Other new work-like toads would pop up to spoil our year of freedom.  We would fall into the same thought patterns and habits that we engage in at work.  Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Toads’ is a sinuous riff on this idea.  He envies other people’s lifestyles but then pulls back.

Why should I let the toad work

Squat on my life?

Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork

And drive the brute off?

The path not taken

In a similar way, we sometimes I find ourselves wondering what our lives would  have been like if we had chosen otherwise, for example, not studying humanities at university but going with the first plan of natural sciences, or not getting married, not living in one country but settling in the other one instead, or not having children.   I imagine a blue-stockinged me in a lab in a white coat, living somewhere in England. ‘Ah, the smell of formaldehyde in the mornings…’  But instead the woman in the white coat is wondering what things would be like if she had studied humanities.

These ‘what ifs’ are like the historical counter factuals that people like to toy with in their imagination: if the Nazis had managed to invade Britain they would all be talking German now; if Colombus had not discovered America there would be a confederation of Native American nations there instead.

No regrets

Wondering about the path not taken is purely an imaginative exercise, an interlude from where I am right now, for the simple reason that I am where and who I am by virtue of the paths not taken.  So we are the historians of our own lives looking back at the real causes and the real facts that came into play in decision making.  And now we can only go from where we are.  As people sometimes say, ‘if I had my life to live over again I would not have done anything differently’.   How we handle the counter factuals is interesting and and can vary from one person, one day, to another.  For some it is a choice between boring work and security on the one hand, versus dreams and the risk of starvation on the other.

Ah, were I courageous enough

                                To shout Stuff your pension!

                But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff

                                That dreams are made on:

For another, the dreams can keep building up a head of steam, become bigger and bigger, so that work itself, along with the ambitions that went with it, comes to lose the importance that it once had.  The dreams lead to a new fork in the path and with these dreams come new responsibilities.  So we can say, some decisions I took in the past were risky but now I regret none of them.  They have brought me to where I am now.

The other day a letter came in the post from the Scottish Highlands.  I ripped it open, curious to see how my friend was getting on.  After all, what person on their deathbed has been heard to say, ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office’?


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