What If?

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”

Readers of my blog may have noticed that several of my blog posts focus on time. That’s because I am fascinated by time–and by the past. (Probably good things for a historian.) I’ve always enjoyed stories about the past–and time travel—and as I grow older I’ve become more interested in my family’s past.

Recently I came across someone who disparaged what he termed “hypotheticals,” as if people don’t think about hypothetical situations all the time. “What if I had done this instead of that?”  “What if this happens? What will I do then?” Don’t most people carry on these soul-searching internal monologues?

 Or how about the middle-of-the-night wondering? “What if that shadow really is a monster?” Yep, been there, done that. 

We speculate how our lives might be altered if we had taken the other road. I wonder how my life might be different if my parents had not decided to divorce when they did, and my mother, sisters, and I moved to Havertown—where I met my future husband in our 9th grade English class. Would he and I have met later? Would we have met at all? Perhaps I am the only one who thinks these types of thoughts, but I doubt it. The popularity of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s classic 1946 film (and its many imitations), indicate that people enjoy speculating about how life would be if a person they know—or if they themselves—had never existed.

When a loved one dies, we experience a world that continues to exists, but with that person no longer in it. Yesterday I watched the Frontline documentary Never Forget to Lie, by Marian Marzynski,  about his experiences as child survivor of the Holocaust, and the experiences of other child survivors. It was incredibly moving, horrible, and thought provoking. I think it is common for Jews who did not experience the Holocaust to wonder how they would have survived. I know I have. Would any of my friends have helped my family and me? Yes, totally hypothetical, but don’t most people wonder about these type of things? After reading Anne Frank’s diary how can anyone not wonder what this talented young woman might have done or become if she hadn’t died in a concentration camp? We will never know.

I love reading historical novels, which are based on reality, but totally hypothetical. Robert Harris’s alternative history, Fatherland, takes place in a world in which Germany won World War II. In contrast, his novel Pompeii takes a historical event—the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius–and uses it as the basis for a mystery. We know that Vesuvius will erupt, but how will the hero escape? Or will he? Could anyone have done so? Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book has Oxford historians time-traveling back to the fourteenth-century–with disastrous results. In the brilliant and compelling City of Women, David R. Gillham tells the story of ordinary people who live in an extraordinary time and place, World War II Berlin. In reading about them–ordinary people with normal weaknesses and characters that are only truly tested as the war continues–I found it impossible not to wonder what I would have done in their situations. Yes, I do wonder what I would do if put in a fictional character’s situation. Because that’s what good fiction does. It transports us to other realms and makes us think about how we would react in various situations.

But hypothetical thinking—and dreaming—is important in real life, too. It is the human capacity to dream and speculate that make scientific discoveries—as well as great art—possible.  So I will continue to ponder the past. I will look back at roads taken and roads not traveled, and I will continue to wonder “what if?”

 

“If I could have convinced more slaves that they were slaves, I could have freed thousands more.”

Harriet Tubman

          

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