The Path You Might Have Taken

As the last iPhone holdout on the planet and blind without virtual powers, I could only guess that the 91 straight ahead was going to stop up in five miles as usual. Do I move left and hit Fastrak or make my way over to the right for Toll? Which will get me to Orange County faster? At 60 miles an hour, there came a point where I was committed. And to stay in the lane was to decide.

We play out this moment more dramatically many times in our lives, often at the crossroads to wildly differing futures. While we can inhabit only one place at one time, language enables us to travel many roads at once in our wondering over what might’ve been. On the TED stage, Classicist Phuc Tran takes a look at this versatility afforded by the subjunctive mood. Remember that the indicative expresses factual action (I am blogging) and the subjunctive, nonfactual with its nuances of possibility and potentiality. (I wish I could blog more. If only I could blog more! I might’ve blogged today if only…)

A brush with tragedy often sends us on the subjunctive ride. Some have marveled that they were sent to a different office the day the Twin Towers fell, others that they had missed their plane. Under the rubble of mishap or suffering, we also often retrace that path. What if I hadn’t taken that dive? What if I hadn’t bumped into her? What if I’d married him? Tran shares, “The night that my family was fleeing Saigon, my entire family, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, were all scheduled to board a bus. And as that bus was loading passengers, I began crying, shrieking uncontrollably, so much so that my entire family decided to wait for the next bus. And as that bus pulled away from us, it was struck by artillery fire. It exploded and everyone on board was killed. As a kid, I thought a lot about our good fortune in escaping and about what would have happened if we hadn’t.”

He goes on to muse that his native Vietnamese tongue uses no subjunctive. His father never dwelt on what could’ve been, for better or worse. He never pined that he should have held security and status as a lawyer and aspiring politician back in Saigon. He did what he had to do in the indicative strength of his mother language, driving a cement mixer to support his family in America. But borrowing from the resources of the English language, his son grew up to explore the possibilities for his own future, crafting joyful work as a Classics instructor as well as a tattoo artist. While saving simplicity can protect us from the bitterness of regret, it can also keep us from life-giving promise. After all, the question of what could have been springs from the same emotional impetus that asks what could be. Isn’t what if the stuff of dreamers and visionaries? It’s what gets people out of North Korea, impels us to look for a better job, start a blog. We don’t just declare our present reality and sit back with a bag over our head. This is my life. This is my body. We devise a better way and move toward it.

Tran cites the 2011 Gallup International that surveyed feelings of optimism among various nations. Which country do you think came out on top? The one “whose language doesn’t allow its speakers to obsess over the idea of what could have been“. The most pessimistic? France – whose language has “two subjunctives and existentialism.” (The audience laughed.) Let me throw in that South Korea reigns as Drama Queen in Asia with her notorious tear-jerker melodrama series that remains in demand across the seas. Korean happens to weigh in as a language fraught with the subjunctive, its history full of pathos and saturated in longing. Just fascinating, how language forges the paths we might take in the mind and heart. And then look what we do with that language.

Something in us not only calls up the prospects we missed but finds so intriguing the ones ahead, that we have come to devote a whole genre called fiction to exploring the unreal – what might have been – and make it real in the indicative. The most powerful novels that stay with me long after I close them sound the echo of steps not taken by characters who had a choice. Because that is life. Able to choose only one moment in time, we forgo competing realities, sometimes let go the dreams that chased us. “The subjunctive is the most powerful mood, it’s like a time-space dream machine that can conjure alternate realities with just the idea of could have or should have. But within this idea of should have is a Pandora’s box of hope and regret,” says Tran.

As for me this year, I am to take neither Fastrak nor Toll in the homeschooling and all the TO DOs but to stay the course, on foot. Grounded. I am working on keeping more grounded, attuned to my needs. All 90 pounds of me have felt as though I could blow away with the wind. I was surprised to find the other day that the inviting rebounder didn’t feel as good as the treadmill I am usually not dying to hop on. My feet sought firmness. It feels good to be cooking again, chopping my beets, the juice of the earth on my hands. I am seeing that it’s not either-or, where I thought life had me in the teeth between the dictates of my indicative circumstances and muzzled hopes. This path of nurture will slowly give way to possibilities.

176 thoughts on “The Path You Might Have Taken

  1. Beautiful and thought provoking, Diana. I speak French and I also dwell – too often some may say – in that place of what-if … There are many ways to avoid the subjunctive, which can sound quite ugly, in the French language, just as there are ways of avoiding the passive voice. I guess the most beautiful language we create with our life-voice lies in the wisdom of when to use the subjunctive, when to avoid the passive and when to walk past, or linger in, the place of what-if …

  2. Hi Diana, Poignant ponderings. You speak well to the hidden potentials and possibilities in life, aka the subjunctive. It sounds like you’re enjoying grounding and nurturing in the physical world.

    I can get lost in the what ifs and what might have been. It’s often better for me to dwell in the what is. be well my dear auntie ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I often think about the “paths I might have taken.” Paths I started to take; then stopped on; then turned around and ran back the wrong way. But I guess there’s no point dwelling on the past! Thanks for the post. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Wow, Diana, you come back to your blog with quite a force ! An excellent and thoughtful piece, even quoting Phuc Tran. Lovely. Language and linguistics have always fascinated me…I had no idea that Vietnamese lacks the subjunctive tense. That really speaks to the essence of this post. What if ??? ๐Ÿ’•

  5. You made think about, how I used to say all the time, what if… I had a better husband..would I have been more successful, raised the kids better, enjoyed life more, etc.
    Now he is long gone. I have not had that thought even once, no what ifs any more. Just happy with my past present and future now.

  6. There’s the subjunctive, could of been, should of been, and then theres the (*) this is what feels good and natural. It is amazing that where words and thoughts lead us is often our lot in life.

  7. Able to choose only one moment in time, we forgo competing realities, sometimes let go the dreams that chased us.
    Loved this description of moment to moment living! Also loved the words- echoes of footsteps not taken.
    Beautifully written. Yes, nurture in the present moment leads to the dream of a joyful life …

  8. Thank you so much for that! God is really helping me do just as you said. And you are right, I feel much more optimistic about my future now! Thanks for putting that into words so I can remember it better:)

  9. I’ve gotten so old that I don’t think “if only I’d done . . . ” anymore. Regrets, yes, but not about the roads have taken only about my own weakness. Great post!

  10. I was talking to a friend about this- the power of getting grounded and moving from that place… and trusting that what wants to happen and needs to happen will happen. I often ponder about roads not taken, which can be it’s own windmill of the mind, I’ve found, littered with regret. And then there are the seeming meant to be’s that make me think that everything has been unfolding perfectly the entire time. Even if we choose to go left, if we have a date with destiny on the right on a Thursday at 4p on the other side of the world, won’t we inevitably end up there anyways? Sounds like you are doing plenty of deepening in nourishing self-care and in being in your life… which only enriches the writing.

    • You always have to be so sweet and encouraging, Diahann. Life has forced my hand. I have to listen to, which means honoring, my body and my spirit before zipping around like a runaway train. Important esp as a wife and mom. My well-being and sanity impact those closest to me. I trust that things will fall into place where first things are first. Thanks for sharing.


  11. Well, being half French myself, I am not at all surprised at France’s standing as numero un on the pessimistic scale. That’s why they drink so much wine you know, the glass always seems half empty….

    Seriously, this is a good, contemplative post and I can tell a lot of thought went in to writing it. I do know what you mean, I think by allowing the path of nurture and getting grounded with nature to lead you to new possibilities. What can feel like going backwards is really getting back to basics and remembering who you are in order to move forward.

    Best of luck as you continue on this journey Diana. Looking forward to reading more posts as you share your experiences with us.

    • Glass half empty. Ha ha ha, clever you. Didn’t realize you were half French. Cool. I appreciate the affirmation, T. Been meaning to write this one for a year now. Modern life makes it too easy to lose ground, miss your own voice and the guidance of your body.


      • Modern life really does seem to have that affect, huh Diana? Good for you for realizing it and doing something about it.

        me too

  12. Such a thoughtful, emotional piece, D. “we have come to devote a whole genre called fiction to explore the unreal โ€“ what might have been” Fiction, and the imagination, is a powerful thing. Lately I’ve been wondering “what if I had…” a lot lately. Perhaps when we say that to ourselves it’s a sign that we haven’t moved on. Or a sign that we believe in second chances that may come up at some point.

    • Good thing you bring up. It isn’t so much the questions we ask, as I think we’re allowed to ask them all, but the spirit in which we do so and the power we give them – either to hurt or handicap us or enable us forward in hope. Thanks, M.

  13. Life has played many cruel tricks on me over the years, yet I know there I lessons I needed to learn from every event despite how painful some of them were. Actually, it’s the most painful ones that teach us the most valuable lessons. I also believe everything happens for a reason.

    I trust too easily, and yet it’s the ones who I should trust who’ve hurt me the most.

    I dwell on the past sometimes not to wonder what if for I know myself and know to a point, based on certain logical conclusions, how life would have gone had I made certain choices, for as they say, hindsight is twenty twenty. But to ponder the ‘what ifs’ of the future is a whole other beast! That, for me, requires faith, for I’m learning daily that I can make quite a mess of things when left to my own devices and in looking back I see Id better leave choices upto the one who knows the future – – God.

    It’s tough to let go and let Him lead but I’m learning to trust the one who will never disappoint… I’ve wasted too much time trusting the wrong people and it time to pick the path that leads me ‘home’. With God there’s no ‘what if’ I just have to trust. It’s actually nice to have someone else drive for a change. Driving alone all these years kinda make me tired ๐Ÿ˜€

    • Wonderful. You unpack how emotional all this can be, looking behind, looking forward. I think THAT is where the burden is, the pain we harbor, even more than whatever was actually done or not done! “All the way my Savior leads me, what have I to ask beside?” Thank you so much for sharing.

  14. Romanticizing the past or present can be rather paralysizing or hypnotizing. We’ve all done it. Staying the in the present moment is not easy, and everyone likes to have the answers and say that’s what they do and it’s for the best, blah, blah, blah.

    I think it’s okay to entertain these things as long as we don’t dwell on it. Sometimes we arrive at the conclusion that here is best because here is where I’m at anyway. It’s a process and a facinating one at that.

    And for the record, you’re not the last non-iPhone user. I don’t support Apple for many reasons, so there won’t be a chance I’ll be buying them anytime soon. Cheers, D.

    • Was thinking about you, L. Romanticizing, paralyzing, hypnotizing are great descriptors for how we shirk out of staying sober, alert, and active in the moment. They certainly rob us of joy, and ironically impede productive, wise road-building toward a bright future. As for the iWhatever-you-call-them, ha ha glad I’m not alone. I still am not sure of the difference between an iPod and iPad but that is A-OK with me.

      • Haha. iWhatever-you-call-them!!! Love it! Samsung is giving apple products a run for their money. I don’t support them either. Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is awesome. It’s a powerhouse of a smartphone – – I haven’t used my computer in months… It does everything ๐Ÿ˜€

      • This thread has everything to do with grounding – I just didn’t say it. Been meaning to put out the post for almost 2 yrs now, on the (imperative) need for literal grounding when you’re on these devices. Talking about ground energy, for the EMF. Well, I just blew the post.

  15. Interesting how language plays with the mind. I never really thought about that before.

    For me, staying in the present moment is beneficial. I occasionally may return to the past with a “what if” but unless it provides meaningful insight I quickly pull myself out of it. No point in wasting your life trying to relive the past.

    • Yes, S, the grains of time run fast on us. We try to catch each one by accepting the present or embracing it. One of my favorite missionaries said, “Wherever you are, be all there.” Jim Elliott. I’ve needed to really work on this.

  16. As I was reading this I realized that language has a direct impact on thought and ultimately culture. I have heard it said that we use the word ‘spelling’ deliberately – essentially casting a spell and deliberately affecting the thoughts and feeling of those who hear and accept the words as truth. There is a state of mind, I call the administrative flow condition where a person is in a state where what is being taken in by the senses has a direct impact on the life expression of the person (the ego) involved. Anticipation or regret are unique to human consciousness, we need to be careful regarding where our thoughts come from…

    • I love how he brings in awareness in physical activities like rowing. How many of us drown out our workout with music or audio books to GET THRough it? I also like how he calls meditation “dropping into being” and says it’s going beyOnd thought. Thanks for sharing, JC.

  17. A thoughtful piece, D. I remember a Muppet movie that I once watched twice in a row under the influence of something or the other. Anyway, they came to a fork in the road. It was a big fork, the type you eat with. Once when I was backpacking through the Grand Canyon, I came to a fork in the trail and someone had stuck an eating fork on the right option. I went left. ๐Ÿ™‚ And how about Frost’s poem, it has always been something of a mantra to me… choose the road least taken. Mainly I worry about roads not taken at 3 a.m. When I am fully awake, the Zin in me tells me to live in the present. Otherwise, it gets away, being the slippery creature it is. โ€“Curt

  18. This is beautiful writing Diana and you explore the subject in such a unique, interesting way. The path not taken is one of the things that most fascinates me and is probably one of the biggest drivers of my writing, because yes, that means I have a glut of paths that I can follow, if only in my imagination. ‘What if?’ Of course, that is our bread and butter ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. Beautiful post, Diana. How sad when we’re haunted by what if instead of living in the now. Your last sentence says it all.

  20. Very thought provoking Diana. I hope this doesn’t trivialise your intelligent analysis and musing, but I often reflect on my dog’s existence. He lived only in the present. He sought the sun when he wanted to be warm, trotted in a hurry to a place he loved then stopped to smell and sniff the ?? pheromones or whatever a dog smells. He ate when he was hungry and slept when he was tired. He was balanced and in tune with his life. I learned a lot from watching him. Thank you.

    • Ha ha ha ha. You broke me into a smile. Actually, it’s the simplest things in life that bear the most profound wisdom, and such includes the way of animals. Esp wildlife. They KNOW. They KNOW what they need, when, how to get it, what not to do. And look at us…I am humbled all over again as I write. We’ve botched things up big time. Run lights late into the night when the sun has left and our own chi (energy) asks to settle, eat late when our digestive system needs to rest so the liver can go to work when we’re asleep. And on and on. (Actually, I also thought of my husband when you mentioned your dog LOL. Bc he so lives in the moment. You know which one of us will outlive the other. ) Thanks!

  21. I think there is a constant push-pull between longing, and dreams, and poignancy, and so much else (this being a place I can inhabit all too well) and the beauty and earthiness of being present; of, as you said, feet to on the ground. In between, as I go back and forth between these two ways of thinking, and doing, there is pain in relinquishing the one for the other, and then also blessing in doing just that. It takes a lot of courage to be human, I think! ๐Ÿ™‚ Don’t know if I at all captured what I meant to say. . . you gave me a lot to think about! Thank you!

  22. The movie, “Sliding Doors” has always intrigued me. The playing out of two totally separate realities based on a single difference in choice. Add to it the quantum theory of a space/time continuum and you have multiple realities all playing at the same time. I’ve often wished I could hop to a parallel track to change the channel:). But I guess we’ll both have to wait for the rocket scientists to figure that one out . . .

    • Exactly. I think about that often, how one little thing ushers in a whole history other than what might have been, that there are really no “small” decisions. Fascinating, how we move in time and space.

  23. There are many crossroads in life, even if we only recognize them in hindsight. I am thankful that each road has its version of adventure. Perhaps we would have chosen something different, but travelling a road is oftentimes what we make of it.

  24. Well done! I think a lot about what my life would’ve been like had I done this, or not done that. But then I look around me and say, “Whew. I’m glad I didn’t.”

  25. Diana,
    Wonderful post. The should haves, could haves and would haves laid out in various circumstances.
    When I was a boy with polio my parents would take me to an amusement park in the summer. I loved to ride the merry-go-round. My dad would stand beside me with a protective arm around my side. My imagination ran wild as I rode my majestic beast through the western terrain chasing outlaws.
    I’ve found that in life we all ride a merry-go-round of sorts. There are those who reach for the brass ring and there are those who find greatest fulfillment in simply the ride alone. And there is nothing wrong in that.
    We don’t need to search for challenges in life. They somehow seem to find us all the same.

  26. Wow what a great article. I really enjoyed reading it and I love how you have written it. I like your writing style.
    Recently I have gone through some really bad times and really good times. I have been at the bottom of the well of depression and then I have dug myself out of this hole and come back better and stronger. There is an article there isn’t there?
    I am enjoying coming home to my house for the first time in about three years. I look forward to walking in the front door, to total calm and cleanliness. I have escaped from the tyranny of one of my adult children, I stood up to the verbal abuse and my daughter was asked to leave my home. Still an article brewing there.
    So the long and the short of it is; I have gone from loss to strength, from mess to cleanliness, from a storm every day to calm and order. And now I enjoy going home after work.
    I enjoyed your article because it spoke to me of the things I have been going through. I recently moved a book shelf and behind the book shelf was the book “Eat Pray Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert. I have almost read the whole book, and it is so appropriate to where I am in my life right now. I would never have found the book or read it if I didn’t move the book shelf. I would never have moved the book shelf if my daughter hadn’t moved out. The cycle of life!
    Cheers from Cassie

  27. Great post! I love linguistics ๐Ÿ™‚ (Brings me back to good old university days …) And yes, the “what ifs” can take up a lot of one time and energy – both the “what if I had chosen differently” and the “what will happen if…” Although of course the first you cannot influence any more and the second might turn out completely different anyway. But I guess it is part of the human nature to fret. When I get too much into the future what-ifs, I try to play them out logically in my head (so what could happen is either this or this or maybe this), sorting out possibilities. Most of the time I end up realising that whatever happens will probably be ok. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  28. There is nothing quite as magical as thinking of what might have been ~ to have taken the other path and let the mind go free with dreams. It is a great exercise to undertake periodically, as it gives me inspiration to make the best with the path I am on and to consciously make choices where I can bring/keep happiness with me. You speak of being being grounded, and to let the goodness come so to speak ~ “This path of nurture will slowly pave the way to possibilities…” is the attitude your son will forever thank you for – giving him the reins to decide where he is to go, the freedom to make his path. I imagine very difficult as a parent (to guide, yet also give freedom) – as parents also shape the path of their kids by influencing decisions of the future (so not to put any more added responsibility on you!). Letting things flow seems to work in terms of achieving a purer form of happiness. Wishing you a great weekend.

  29. I hope your WIP, aka being more grounded is coming along nicely.
    I suppose that what if, has it’s place, you know as we make projections say concerning an experiment or formulate solutions for probabilities…

    But in my life story, if I use it to look backwards, then it is not a very good use of my time. Everything I wish could have been different, I probably do, because it was broken.

    As far as words go, I came across one the other day. It is not subjunctive. It is a noun. Kintsukuroi- to repair with gold; the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.

    What if everything that has been broken in our lives will be repaired with gold or silver lacquer in future? Oh what if!

    I enjoyed reading this and learning about language.

  30. Pingback: Love: Sometimes You Want Your Money Back | A Holistic Journey

  31. Pingback: The Path You Might Have Taken | Bags and Burns

  32. Really enjoyed this. I love the idea of language shaping our mind set. I often wonder what is a healthy bit of assessment of my past and how much is a kind of dwelling that creates an atmosphere of regret. I think I do both but I’d like to do a lot less of the latter.

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