Joshua Rothman just published a haunting piece in The New Yorker: “What if you could do it all over?” In that article, he explores the concept of looking back at one’s past and considering the lives that one could have led, but did, and will, not.
Rothman notes that as we grow older, the menu of possible life choices grows narrower, our range of possibilities shrinks, and we become increasingly locked-in to whatever life we are currently living. There are still decisions to be made and options to pursue, but that time in our lives when anything seemed possible – which some of us were lucky enough to have had when we were younger – is gone forever. The problem is particularly acute for secular people, Rothman notes, because we don’t believe in an afterlife or reincarnation. This life is the only one we can conceive of, and in one’s mid-50s, like I am now, there is less and less room for radical innovation.
Yesterday, my 17-year old daughter asked if I thought we should have stayed in Mexico, where we spent a year’s sabbatical in 2011-12, and where I had received a permanent job offer from an excellent local university. I thought about that carefully. Had we stayed, my ex-wife and I might not have divorced three years ago, saving me and my kids enormous heartache. But then again, I would never have met my current partner and would never have experienced an adult romantic relationship with none of the sadness and frustration that had infiltrated my 20-year marriage.
Had we stayed in Mexico, the kids would have grown up speaking Spanish and their friends would have been Mexican and other internationals. They would be comfortable in Latin America, but would have no US identity. Does that really matter, however? It’s just as good to have a Mexican identity; perhaps even better, as you grow up free of the hubris and complications of living through the endtimes of the world’s largest superpower.
Professionally, I would probably have become focused on Mexican society and politics, which might have been truly exciting. On the other hand, I would never have carried out the fascinating international surveys I did after moving to the University of Minnesota in 2012. And so on and so forth.
As I thought about all the permutations, personal and professional, I grew overwhelmed.
Things got even trickier when my daughter’s question, and Rothman’s New Yorker piece, made me think of my early 20s, when I had become disenchanted with Israel because of the country’s treatment of Palestinians. I had served in the Israeli military from 1985 to 1988 with (over?) zealous dedication, gravitating towards high-risk combat units out of a commitment to Zionism and – more importantly – because of the interpretation I’d then had of the meaning of masculinity and its correlation with social status. Serving in an elite infantry unit was a valued identity in Israel of the mid-1980s, and I pursued that niche with all the enthusiasm I would have devoted to getting into a top US college had I grown up in the States, or to playing high school football, had I been athletically and culturally inclined.
All the Israel/army/status stuff came crashing down in the late 1980s, however, when I began working for the Associated Press in Jerusalem, and later Human Rights Watch. I was (over?) exposed to the harsh realities of Palestinian life under Israeli military rule, and never really recovered. Those few years of touring the West Bank and Gaza on my own, meeting victims of the same security services that I had recently revered, changed me forever. They drove a wedge between myself and my family, friends, and everything I’d grown up with, and that wedge has never fully disappeared. I cringe today thinking of my 25-year old self-righteous self, telling all and sundry they were human rights monsters. As I fled to the US and then to Canada and Mexico, I lost touch with who I was, and only remembered occasionally when stumbling across the rare North American restaurant with decent falafel. Sometimes, those meals triggered the lost identity, leading to a binge of hummus over-consumption and, later that night, deep anxiety and indigestion.
What would my life had been like had I stayed in Israel? Hard to know, but like Walter Mitty, I often dream of the possibilities. My dreams are less adventurous than his, but the fantasies are no less real.
The one that recurs the most is of working as a university professor at Tel Aviv or Hebrew University; my alternate Israeli life is still one where I am what I actually am, professionally – an academic (or at least, what I was until July 2020). Instead of teaching sociology and political science in random cities across the North American continent, however, I was teaching in the places where I had grown up, surrounded by friends and family. They hurt, those fantasies.
To be sure, some big things can still change as we get older. My ex, for example, made a truly life-altering choice when she abruptly moved out three years ago, divorced without discussion, and decided to start an entirely new personal life. That was a big one for all concerned. Still, for the most part, huge shifts of this sort are no longer all that feasible. I recently left my profession of 20 years, but the new business I’m trying to start is a research consulting firm, and my vision of this “new” profession draws heavily on the skills, contacts, and sensibilities I developed over decades of university employment.
I will never become an opera singer (I used to think about that when singing to my infant children), a restaurant owner (good for being surrounded by friendly people, I thought), an investment banker (lots of those fantasies following the financially painful divorce), or an international humanitarian aid worker (a more distant fantasy, nurtured by relationships with admirable friends who really are heroes in that world)
My real brain and physical being, as opposed to my fantasy brain and body, can’t actually go there. I don’t have the knowledge, training, instincts, or the contacts, and neither my body nor my brain is up to the task of learning it all from scratch. And even if they were, few employers are keen to offer positions to older folks who may have been skilled in a previous professional life, but who have no readily discernible value-added in their new fantasy profession. I learned that the hard way, applying for months on end to consulting agencies, financial services firms, and even going through the motions of investigating the purchase of a coffee shop.
My father likes to say the only constant in life is change, and that probably is true. But as we get older, those changes take place in an ever-narrowing funnel.
The sooner I learn to accept this, the sooner I’ll reach nirvana.