Pardon my getting metaphysical. I was reading a first-person New York Times essay by Jeremy Shatan on losing a child, when one of many moving statements therein resonated with me. He and his wife lost a toddler named Jacob to a brain tumor 13 years ago, but the lives of two other children born later bring an occasional frisson of cognitive dissonance.
“Somewhere in my soul there’s a trajectory for Jacob’s life that is still going on,” Shatan writes, “a part of me that wonders why we haven’t already hit these milestones with him first.”
As I have written previously, the inflection points of life fascinate me. I think the trajectory of other lives that Shatan refers to entices all of us. In From Time to Time, the sequel to Time and Again, fantasy writer Jack Finney imagines the Titanic docking at Pier 59 in New York on April 17, 1912. Another science fantasy writer named Ken Grimwood imagined in the novel Replay a 43-year-old man who dies of a heart attack on page one and awakens back in his college dorm room – with all his memories of the coming 25 years intact. When he reaches 43 in his second life, he dies again, and awakens a little later, and so on, for at least a dozen lives (ironically, Grimwood himself died of a heart attack at 59). Groundhog Day owes more than a little debt to Replay.
Boomers, especially, can indulge in a rich fantasy life. How would our world have been different if say, a recount in 1960 had uncovered voter fraud in Chicago? Or if the Secret Service had put the bulletproof bubbletop on Jack Kennedy’s limousine in Dallas? The course of Vietnam and its ripples through our lives would have flowed in another direction. Ah, what might have been.
And in our own lives, especially as we grow older, the questions mount.
● What if I had defied my parents and gone east for college?
● What if the girl with whom I fell in love hadn’t come to visit her brother over spring break?
● What if I had taken a different job offer over the one I did?
● What would my life be like?
There are times, in fact, when I think it’s manifestly unfair that we only have the one life. Somewhere in my soul is the trajectory for another life – or more – one in which I live in a city and go to the symphony and ride streetcars and taxis. It could be San Francisco or Seattle or Sydney. The world is so big and life is so short. Don’t get me wrong – my life has turned out better than I had any reason to suspect. Living in Silicon Valley for the last 30 years has been like living in the middle of the Gold Rush, with amazing discoveries and wild fortunes. I like living here, and I love the life my wife and I have created.
Indeed, it’s primarily because this life is so much fun that I’m greedy for more. If someone had a really crummy life, why would they want a second and a third, except perhaps as a do-over?
Who are my friends in those lives? Who are my lovers? Would I have children? Dogs instead of cats? Would my wife and I still have found each other? What if we could bounce between those trajectories of other lives like Billy Pilgrim sliding through time in Slaughterhouse Five? Would we be able to take the lessons learned in one and apply them to the others? Would we be smarter for having lived more lives than one?
Alas, such questions are for naught – except as inspiration to think about ways to make this world, this life, even better: a place without regret or useless reflection. Only then would the trajectories of other lives become no more than shooting stars in the night, barely visible and only occupying our thoughts for the briefest of moments.