The roads not taken

What were the choices that got us here?

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

2020 has hit us all differently. We see in our lives, our work schedules, maybe even our futures very differently because of what the year has done to us.

Our choices – and their consequences – are more distinct than before.

We had more margin of error a few years ago. But in 2020, the slightest glitch or shift in the marketplace could spell catastrophe for a business or even an entire industry.

The question asked in a million different contexts is “How did we get here?”

From career points to health care, what were the choices that got us here? And what were the choices we could or should make to get to our next preferred step?

What could we have done? What should anyone have done?

2020 seemed to highlight a principle we all knew – choices have consequences – but in 2020 this guiding principle seemed to explode geometrically.

As we look at these questions and issues, many of us in isolation or reduced work schedules might look at how choices made, or opportunities seized (or missed) have taken us along their own relentless momentum.

Friends, schools, trainings, travels and much more define our range of possibilities.

We might look back on choices made – they might be large, like college admissions to small, or individual, like going to a certain party or joining a club.

Every choice taken represents a choice or two, or three not taken.

Every club or sport joined represents several not pursued.

Every book read represents two or three (or in my case five or six) not read.

You could look at our life journey as a map with a mass of colored lines, some taken and many not taken.

We might look at our life as a relatively linear trajectory, but the reality is that our life is a series of bifurcating forks, each one a split, each one a tiny, but discernible shift in direction.

A friend of mine who was a pilot told me that any active flight is in a state of constant course correction. What that means, he went on to say, is that any given flight is, at any precise moment, literally off-course.

The course corrections define the progress of the flight and, one presumes, its arrival at its final destination.

If you’ve ever flown and noticed the map of the flight in progress, it shows a relatively straight line with the jet on it, almost always off-center from the line. You can see the course correction in process as the pilot continually renegotiates the navigation.

In other words, in flight, the only firm location is the point of departure and the point of arrival.

And, to a large degree, those constant recalculations and recalibrations don’t really matter.

In most of life, the journey is at least as important, sometimes far more important, than the destination.

In flight though, our best-case scenario is a predominantly predictable, if not boring, journey and a safe and productive or enjoyable arrival.

But unlike most flights, our lives are packed with unexpected surprises, choices and conundrums. We meet, or avoid, challenges and unrealized opportunities.

We accumulate the baggage, positive or negative of our choices and perhaps a few regrets along the way.

There may be some big regrets, and probably many smaller ones. Some are easily forgotten while some may haunt us for years.

As the poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) put it in his poem Maud Muller;

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”

Relationships or career choices will certainly impact our entire lives.

And millions of smaller choices leave their mark; that movie we did (or didn’t) see, that memorable visit with a friend or ailing family member, that book read or never opened; each choice adds a layer, or a flavor, on our character.

And those unexpected meetings may end up being the most important of all.

No journey, even a flight planned and regulated through every movement and moment, goes entirely as intended.

Relationships and careers take their turns, spins and dips, and sometimes leave us weary, discouraged or, if we are lucky, grateful and satisfied.

But we just might learn something important about ourselves or encounter a life-changing challenge tucked inside or behind what seemed like an insurmountable obstacle.

Difficulties show us what we are made of, and we just might discover some strengths or currents of resourcefulness we didn’t know we had.

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” — Wendell Berry

2020, in more ways than could be counted, has been a difficult year for all of us. Some of us have faltered, some have lost immeasurably, and some of us, perhaps, have learned lessons that will leave us far different than any of us would have imagined possible.

We are equipped, or maybe strengthened, or maybe even damaged in transit, but one thing we know for certain is that we won’t be the same in years to come precisely because of what we encountered in 2020.

We may be more grateful, we may be more determined to never get hit like that again, and we might even be better prepared for whatever life throws at us, but who we were, and much of what we cared about way back in 2019 seems like distant history.

We might be straggling, but whatever bruises, regrets or disasters, financial or otherwise we might have, we made it through, and we are ready for a new year.

And 2020 just might be the perfect year to leave in the distance of our rear-view mirror….