Train of Thought

Posted on January 10, 2012


Most of us spent our childhoods bouncing back and forth between our own wants and the demands of various authority figures. In many ways, it seemed like some kind of game that we woke up in the middle of, and that required us to figure out the rules as we went along. Gradually, through a lot of trial and error, we learned how to win the game, at least once in a while.

Then, around age eighteen, we began to intoxicate ourselves with the idea that we were in control of our lives. We had a plan in our head and we decided things, believing if we made the right choices, they would take us closer to our goals. So off we went, rolling the dice and moving around the board. And that seemed to work well, at least from one move to the next. But what we didn’t notice was that every time we made a move, or just stood still long enough, the entire board changed. We had limited vision, so we couldn’t see the whole board, and made new decisions based on the small part we could see. Meanwhile, everyone else was doing the same.

But I now realize that it wasn’t a game at all. It was something much more complex and elusive — a series of fields that overlapped and affected each other in ways that only occasionally became visible. The weather may be an appropriate comparison, although I know very little about the weather, other than that there are cold fronts and warm fronts, and that a heavy downpour is a delicious thing, unless you happen to be operating a table saw out on the sidewalk.

Actually, this is closer to how I picture it:

Facing a situation that offers a broad set of options is like entering a huge subway station. You’re at some point in a three-dimensional system of tubes, tracks, and platforms. You can get on the train going in either direction. Or you can wait for the next train, or the one after that. Once you decide on a train, you can sit wherever there’s an available seat. Or you can stand. Or walk from car to car, mumbling out loud about government conspiracies and the price of lettuce. If you sit next to someone who seems mostly harmless, you could strike up a conversation. That person might invite you out for lunch, or offer you a job. Or completely ignore you, which causes you to get off at your stop, go straight home, and eat an entire coffee cake.

It’s also possible that the person would have offered you a job, but you chose to sit next to the guy reading the newspaper instead, and all he did was fold the pages in front of your face. Your life just changed and you don’t even know it. Or maybe you sat in exactly the right seat, but the person with the job to offer has missed the train. Somebody else would get your job. Or maybe nobody would. Everyone on that train, and on every train in that system, made a decision that could have been different because of whim or circumstance. Each one of those decisions changes the mix. One person absent means an empty seat for someone who otherwise would have had to sit somewhere else. What if, rather than sitting next to a potential employer, you’d sat next to someone with the flu? Three days from now, instead of earning a living, you’d be throwing up.

After you ride a while, you can get off the train at any station and go anywhere from there. But where? Maybe it doesn’t matter; you’re just out cooling off after a really bad argument with your landlord, who keeps expressing an irrational objection to the fact that you practice bowling in the hallway. Or maybe you’re lost. Or you fell asleep and went right past your stop. Any one of those possibilities opens up countless new options and consequences. And the same is true for everyone else riding on every train and standing on every platform.

It’s easy to overlook the complexities of human interaction. I still sometimes go back into my memories and try to change one thing, and keep everything else the same. Only it doesn’t work that way. Everything changes everything. Making the mistake of turning left instead of right at the intersection may delay my arrival by four minutes, but it may have also prevented me from getting into a head-on collision. The thing is, I have no way of knowing that, because the collision didn’t happen. So rather than feeling a tremendous sense of relief at not getting killed, I instead feel slightly annoyed at being four minutes late.

I don’t use that example lightly.

When I was fifteen, one of my older brothers asked me if I wanted to go somewhere with him in his car. I said that I didn’t, but then almost immediately decided that I would go. As he was heading out the door, I changed my mind yet again and told him I wanted to stay home, after all. An hour later, the police called to let my mother know that my brother had gotten into a bad accident. He was banged up, but all right. The car, however, was totaled. He had swerved off the road and run full-speed into the end of a guardrail. In those days, guardrails didn’t end in a curve or a flat plate, but projected their sharp edges directly into traffic, like giant kitchen utensils used to plunge out the cores of apples. My brother had hit the end of the guardrail such that it pierced the right front tire, speared through the glove compartment, and rammed itself straight into the middle of the passenger’s seat.

For years I wrestled with the meaning of my seemingly insignificant decision about whether or not to get into the car that day. I couldn’t remember why I chose to stay home, but I was sure that if I had gone with my brother, I would’ve been impaled by that guardrail. My life had apparently been saved by a choice that was so trivial it could have been made with the flip of a coin.

Or had it?

What caused the accident? Had he swerved to avoid a squirrel running across the road? Maybe the car ahead of him had slammed on its brakes and my brother, who’d glanced into his mirror, looked back just in time to avoid the other car. But what if I had gone with him? Would he have pulled out of the driveway at exactly the same moment? Leaving even a few seconds later would have allowed the squirrel to get across, or might have put a few more cars between ours and the guy slamming on his brakes. Or maybe we would’ve gone a different way, I would have eluded the accident that never was, and my mind would have been free — all these years — from thoughts of a sheet metal skewer through the chest.

I’ve been trying to remind myself to take a fresh look at other past events, too. We’ve all done things we wish we hadn’t. Guilt and regret have their place. But this process of mentally rewinding the tape, making one revision, and then watching the story unfold in some predictable way is a delusion. The truth is, we know only what happened; it’s impossible to know what would have happened. Our destiny is a bundle of twisted strands — things we can foresee and control, and things we can’t.

If you’d gotten into law school, would you be happier today? If Uncle Leo had introduced some moderation into his addiction to Bavarian Cream, could he have avoided that fatal heart attack? If my father had bought stock in Coca-Cola in 1952, would our family be wealthy now? Maybe. But everything changes everything. Financial riches would have altered my family’s path, and I would have never been born. Talk about missing the train.