"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference." - Robert Frost.
How many times have you found yourself at a fork in the road and no matter how impetuous or carefully considered your decision was, you couldn’t help but wonder (either at the time or further down the track) what course would your life have taken had you chosen the other path?
Some such decisions might be momentous, such as a career change, moving to another country, saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a business or a marriage proposition. Some might be deadly, as was the case of Alberto Dominguez (the first Australian to die in the September 11 attacks), who at the last minute decided to delay his plane back from the US to Australia by one day, and ended up aboard American Airlines flight 11 when it plunged into one of the towers of the World Trade Centre. And conversely, I remember reading the stories of people who were meant to be in the towers at the time of the attacks, but had missed their bus, or woken up with a cold, or decided to spend the day with their lover instead of going to work – and had no idea of what happened until they received frantic calls from their family (or their wife!) wanting to know if they were alive.
In the movie ‘Sliding Doors’ it is not even a conscious decision, but the simple fact that she misses a train that sets the main character’s life in a different direction. We get to see both futures taking place, and in both futures she finds her way to Mr Nice Guy and out of the clutches of her cheating boyfriend. The German film “Run, Lola, Run” explores three variations of one story, in which minimal things, such as brushing someone’s arm in the street by accident, can cause not just your own future but the other person’s to change in radical ways.
Moving countries from Bolivia to Australia in 1988 was one of the most distinctive forks in the path of my lifetime, and I often wonder what would life had been like if I stayed in Bolivia and pursued a career as a concert pianist. Among the friends who stayed some became renowned opera singers, directors, composers, and one even an internationally famous rock star; whereas I abandoned my career in music when it became too difficult to pursue it in a country where musicians were light-years ahead of me in their training. Admittedly many of my musician friends in Bolivia were not as successful as the others, and struggled to make ends meet; and even some of the successful ones often had to supplement their income doing other jobs.
But even before that, straight out of school, I studied two years of psychology at university. Had I stayed, would I be writing articles for research journals and transforming people’s lives through counselling, as many of the graduates from my class are doing now?
The internationally successful rock star happened to be the young man I was dating before I left the country. At the time, he didn’t even have enough money to buy his own guitar. If I stayed in Bolivia, would I have gone onto marry the rock star? Would he had become a rock star at all, with me pulling him back, perhaps with one or two children in tow? He never married, although I heard that he had a child ‘out of wedlock’ with another celebrity, a television presenter.
I also wonder sometimes whether, if I had married a different man 26 years ago – freshly arrived in Australia - instead of my ex-husband, would I now have the happy family, the kids and the white picket fenced house in the suburbs? Somehow, I think not. Even back then, in my early twenties, I don’t remember ever dreaming this ‘Arcadian’ ideal...
I do remember however sitting for the public service test within months of my arrival. Sometime later a letter arrived offering me a job in the public sector, but by then I had already obtained employment in a private company. I dismissed the letter, not knowing how difficult it would be to enter the public service if you were not already in the system. Many a time in the years that followed I applied for government jobs and didn’t’ even get as far as the interview. Who knows, had I accepted that job offer, I could now be in the Senior Executive Service of Australia…. or, on the other hand, I could be working as a teller at the post office. Either way, I most probably wouldn’t have met the friends and colleagues I now have, I wouldn’t have achieved the things that I’ve achieved in the private and later in the not-for-profit sectors; I would not be working for a highly respected charity, helping disadvantaged people transform their lives, and using my writing skills for a great cause.
Having faced another distinctive fork in the road recently I asked a friend: “how can I know the decision I am making is right?” And she said, whether it is right or wrong, you have to “make it right”. Once you follow one course, you have to decide that this was the right course, and make it work, without looking back. I thought that was pretty sound advice. What is the use of dwelling on what could’ve, should’ve or would’ve have been?
Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges tackled this subject in his short story “The Garden of the Forking Paths”, in which one of the characters analyses Ts’ui Pên’s fictional masterpiece, a novel that is apparently nonsensical, contradictory and chaotic, and explains that:
“In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts'ui Pên, he chooses - simultaneously- all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork. Here, then, is the explanation of the novel's contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret; a stranger calls at his door; Fang resolves to kill him. Naturally, there are several possible outcomes: Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, they both can escape, they both can die, and so forth. In the work of Ts'ui Pên, all possible outcomes occur; each one is the point of departure for other forkings.”
Each time I am confronted with a fork, or even a branch in the road, this is what I would like to believe: that another version of me has chosen each of the other paths; and thus, there is one of me who is a concert pianist, another an eminent psychologist, another a bohemian artist, another a happy stay-at-home mother, another a senior government executive, another a rock star’s groupie… and so on. In all the versions, I am, and will always be, a writer.
The movie 'Hector and the Search for Happiness' (based on the book by François Lelord), whilst not a cinematic masterpiece, was for me one of those thought-provoking, laugh-inducing and, at times, tear-jerking films that made me consider, long after we had left the theatre, one of the age long questions - What Is Happiness?
In the spirit of 'Eat, Pray, Love', Hector (Simon Pegg), a psychiatrist, leaves the perfectly organised, regimented life he shares with his girlfriend Clara, and sets out to find the meaning of happiness; a journey that will take him to a monastery in China, a hospital in Africa, and to a reunion with his old university 'flame' in Los Angeles.
Wherever he goes, he takes a journal where he writes down the lessons learnt from all the people he meets along the way. These characters range from a hideously rich businessman, to a penniless young prostitute, an old wise monk, a dangerous drug dealer, an African grandmother, a world expert in happiness, and a terminally ill woman who is undertaking her last journey.
As to be expected, Hector discovers that Happiness means something different to everyone. In the case of the African woman, happiness is as simple as cooking a pot of sweet potato stew and sharing it with her large family. He also discovers that happiness encompasses a range of emotions, including those considered negative; such as sadness, fear and pain.
When I think of the elusive concept of happiness, I always remember the lines uttered by Clarissa Vaughan, a character from another movie, 'The Hours' (based on the book by Michael Cunningham) when she admits to her daughter that she hasn’t been happy in a very long time:
I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself "this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more." It never occurred to me it wasn't the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then...
The Hours was not a happy movie, according to the half a dozen people who came with me and who cursed me for months for choosing it; in fact some of them are still holding it against me. But a decade on, I still remember the lesson I took away from it, and find myself constantly catching and enjoying that fleeting moment, which is not the beginning of happiness, but happiness itself, before it’s gone.
There are days when I experience several such moments, because happiness lies in the simple, everyday things that we often take for granted.
For several years I worked in an “office” which once used to be a garage. It was dark, with the windows painted shut and the walls painted a sickly shade of green. It was hot in summer, cold in winter and generally a depressing place to spend eight hours a day in. My workmate and I used to call it 'the cave' or sometimes 'the dungeon’. One day she had the brilliant idea of sticking a laminated piece of white paper on the door, and we used a black marker to make a list, accompanied by child-like drawings, of all the things that made us happy. Whenever our gloomy surroundings started ‘getting’ to us, we would look at our list and remember the many wonderful things we had in our lives, and we always ended up with a smile on our faces, which in turn made the room brighter.
The items contained in the list were amazing in their simplicity: Family, the kindness of strangers, sunrises, sunsets, rainbows, sunny winter days, chocolate, themed birthday parties, writing, air drumming, dancing, singing, holidays, bush walking, gardening…
Some people - as Hector finds out - see happiness as permanently in the future; a goal to constantly strive for, which is by default unattainable. Others, like Clarissa Vaughan, feel that their happiness belongs in the past. When Clarissa tells her daughter that the last time she felt genuinely happy was decades ago, her daughter replies ‘what you are saying, is that you were once young.’ I was once young too, and know what it is like to experience that kind of earth shattering happiness. When I was eighteen and in love for the first time, this is what I wrote about it:
I am so happy that I even feel angry; I am so happy that I feel like crying out aloud, that my lungs feel like bursting out like a balloon, so happy that I feel impotent at the sight of so much beauty, the nightfall of December, the Christmas lights at the windows, and the music - the ever blessed music - so happy, that I feel dumb in the presence of so much life, that the singing of the birds amongst the leaves is deafening, as deafening as the protest of those who cannot feel this madness.
… and so it went for two whole pages. But was this really happiness? Or was it euphoria? We all know what it is like to be 'high'; some people take drugs, others take extreme risks in order to experience that euphoria. I have been high in love, high in lust and even high in anger many a time. But is that happiness?
This morning, I woke up with a spring in my step, with that subtle yet exciting feeling of having butterflies in my stomach, for no particular reason. Yes, I had a good night sleep, and it was a beautiful day. But was that enough reason to be happy? I hadn't achieved or acquired anything overnight; nothing was different from yesterday. I decided not to question it. I held onto that feeling and managed to get to the end of the day with ‘it’ still inside me, despite a couple of incidents which generally would have been enough to make my mood plummet.
When all is said and done, if we can look back and remember the hours spent enjoying a good book, writing a poem, or gardening with the sun on our backs; and the times of laughter, of joy and even of tears shared with lovers, family and friends, then we can say we have lived a life filled with happiness.
There are the trivial questions in life, and then there are the big questions.
What is the meaning of life? What are we all here for? What will I leave to the world when I’m gone? Will there be a moment, however brief, when I will understand it all?
“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”
(Life Magazine’s motto, as featured in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty had a production budget of 90 million USD, and as such it is packed with special effects and breathtaking scenery filmed in remote locations. But the story goes beyond that. It explores the purpose of life (a subject too vast to be tackled here) and the power of imagination, which is the subject of this blog post.
Have you started compiling your ‘bucket list’? Or is it something that you will do when you are closer to ‘kicking the bucket’?
Personally, I got started early. Being diagnosed with a chronic condition such as Diabetes Type 1 (insulin dependent) makes you consider such things.
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,