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The meaning of ‘what if’

Overview

Published: 06/25/2012

by Jim Campbell

Recently there seems to be a lot of ‘what if’ books and television programs coming out. ‘What if’ the British had

lost the air war over Kent? ‘What if’ Presidents Abraham Lincoln or John F.  Kennedy had not been assassinated?

‘What if’ Napoleon’s Grand Army won the Battle of Waterloo…if the Berlin Wall still stood…if Anwar Sadat, President of

Egypt, had not flown to Tel Aviv to negotiate peace with Israel…if the Aztecs had defeated the Spanish adventurers…?

‘What if’ stories are pure speculation.

While many issues have been decided by the narrowest of margins, by a close run a bridge held or captured, a sudden

storm throwing a fleet off course, the death of a leader, an assassination – the courses of action following the events are

also important. The follow-up decisions, the opportunities taken advantage of, could even be more important! Writers of

‘what if’ stories need to invent a whole series of ‘what ifs’ to navigate the turns and forks in the road, the many alternative

paths and chancy events, for their plots to represent any element of credibility.

Also, while one often can put a finger on the moment when the tide turned the storming of the Winter Palace in

St. Petersburg or Columbus’s finding of America – the changes that came to pass are often inevitable. Dramatic forces,

sea-changes, were at work – the anger and poverty of the masses in Russia; the huge advances in ship design and navigation

in the mid-15th century – and thus, sooner or later, the same outcomes would have emerged. Add in the interplay

of race, religion, economics, geography, technology, shifts in climate, demographics and migrations, and it is

clear that forecasting what’ll happen, or ‘what might have happened if’, becomes endlessly complex.

I’m not trying to put down the writers of the stories  nor trying to diminish the importance of historic

events – or of the heroes that have been recognized as the engines of change.

What this is all about is our lives!

Our lives? Yes, our lives often turn on an event, a decision taken, a chance encounter, a challenge met and overcome.

Many paths and decisions have brought us to the present time to create who we are. Much of our personal history is about

the kind of family, the teachers, friends and mentors we have had, the people who put a good word in our ear or spoke on

our behalf. Our story is about having second chances, about when we were in the right place at the right time; it’s like the

credit card commercial says – ‘priceless’. We are also subject to the sea-changes around us: demographic shifts, wars,

depressions, boom times, what generation you’re in – baby boomer or Generation X – climate change and the

advance of technology. For example, on a Friday evening in the mid-fifties a friend and his workmates celebrated the end of

his apprenticeship as a lithographer. The next Monday morning the company announced it was switching to modern

photo-lithography. There is not much we can do to affect such realities. All that does not stop us from wondering

how things might have worked out if we’d made different decisions along the way. I’ve wondered how my life would’ve been if

I’d taken my chance to apprentice as an architect. A little bit of that sort of nostalgia goes a long way. It wouldn’t be

good to be like a worn-out boxer lamenting, “I could’ve been the champ.” Living with what might have been doesn’t

help us to make decisions in the present. Thankfully, most of us get on with the life we have built.

 However, working through the ‘what ifs’ can be helpful – if we find there a sense of humility and gratitude.

The words of W. E. Henley are only partly true, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” While what

we decide and do is obviously important, we are not self-made. It is humbling to remember how thin the line can be

between success and failure, how opportunities can appear from out of the blue, how much we have been helped by the

contributions of others, the foundations they built, and the words of encouragement given when we needed a boost.

That’s where gratitude comes in. To thank someone who helped you, to pass on the blessing by helping someone

else, is a sure sign that we have a grasp on what life is all about. A measure of humility and gratitude, now that’s a good

thing.

 

 

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