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 potential. (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 how 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, saturated in longing. 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’d 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 chase 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. It’s true, isn’t it? Language makes a world, and so opens some doors and closes others. I remember chatting once with two Native Americans, and the one said to the other that he experiences him differently when he speaks English rather than Cree. I’ve often thought of that, and my own maternal Grandparents who clung to German, while my mother was not much interested in it.

    • Whilst different languages have many similarities (and differences) in syntaxes and grammars, it is very true that they possess very different “sound and feel” as well as “cosmologies”, so to speak, even as/if we take into account the subjective or elastic nature of the meanings and imports of words. In addition, when one adds or super(im)poses linguistic/cultural variations and idiosyncrasies, the results can be unexpected and contingent.

      Unfortunately, many languages are (or in danger of) going extinct as we speak.

      • I appreciate the cosmologies, which to me suggests frequencies. Everything in the universe emits its own frequency – hence, energy – words and their patterns, no less. Sociolinguistics adds a whole other dimension to language: Korean, for instance, is very difficult for nonnatives to Master despite its simple, elegant syntax, for the complex social cues (codes!) embedded in the language and inflection.

  2. Reblogged this on HarsH ReaLiTy and commented:
    I thought this was a great read. I didn’t understand every other word and had to google most of the post for definitions… but at least I learned something! I blame English being my second language.

    In all seriousness if you don’t follow HW’s blog you should. She writes very well. -OM

    Note: Comments disabled here. Please visit their blog.

  3. “Able to choose only one moment in time, we forgo competing realities, sometimes let go the dreams that chased us”. I love this. It’s so true. I understand what you mean about the power of language to shape our thoughts. I wonder though, how much of dreaming of alternate paths is also just human nature? Our evolution is scattered with people who dared to ask “what if?” and took a chance on that impulse. Even if our language didn’t allow for it.
    Wonderfully written! I love the poetic tone of this.

    • I appreciate the feedback and follow, Kim. Yes, even apart from language I agree it is in us to pursue fresh frontiers because progress is a human instinct. But it’s fascinating how language structures can affect feelings across cultures, isn’t it? Welcome to A Holistic Journey!


  4. Shaking off those feelings…what could have been….is hard sometimes. As is staying grounded. I find my sneakers hovering above the ground more often than I should. Lovely post. The language part was fascinating, I knew different languages have different tenses, but I never thought that could affect an entire national outlook. Fascinating.

    • Seriously! I found his dissection so intriguing. And yes, the matter of grounding gives me a FouNdAtion πŸ˜‰ for a host of things I can work on this year, like more grounding Yoga poses and Frankincense essential oil. Nice to hear from you.


  5. Perfect words for me, a tumbleweed, who falls in love with every potential path that crosses mine.

    Regret can be paralyzing. May it play its useful role, to help us be honest and humble about our shortcomings, without becoming a block to what we need.

    There is no subjunctive in Vietnamese??? Ninety pounds??? Grounding might be a tad bit more difficult for you than for the rest of us. Cheers —

    • A tumbleweed, huh? I sense a romantic spirit – and I mean that in gen’l terms. Love the hope that we not stand in our own way. Ha ha, I know: I can’t imagine not KNOWing the subjunctive! I hope I reached 90. Either way, I’m glad we tumbled onto one another other’s path. πŸ˜‰

  6. I’ve seen this happening a lot of times. I can also sure if I hadn’t the terrible accident, I wouldn’t be married to my husband and residing in Canada, instead of Latvia. Latvian is a very ancient language, one of two still living Baltic languages which have many archaic features. There exist a number of Baltic words that are similar to Sanskrit or Latin . So, we have plenty of legends and sagas and fairy-tales and similar. Basically, the human life and things what happen or don’t are related to long chains of interchangeably connected relations, both in time and space. Therefore, I as Latvian, can tell you: if something wasn’t meant to happen, it just won’t. That doesn’t mean one has to jump from the 10th floor to check out if there will be a pillow down there put by an angel, but there’s a truth in that, and I have seen this during all 57 years. They gave me no hope to survive, but deep-down I knew I would and I wasn’t worried. The same about that family: they were meant to have some task, so there was something preventing them from being killed. However, none of these chains of connected events are coincidental. You have to imagine incredibly complex net stretching out to all directions and intersecting with branches of other nets. This indicates time is just something we perceive as existing and accurate, in fact, it’s very relative, and we can feel that.

    • Yes, Inese. Things certainly get interesting when trauma or tragedy ends up the path to higher ground. I learned something new about Baltic words. I love how you trusted your own voice and body over dissenting, discouraging voices and knew you would make it. Thanks so much for sharing!


  7. A beautival, provocative, evocative read…superbly written, educational and insightful..thumbs up on this amazing narrativeπŸ‘πŸ½πŸ‘πŸ½πŸ‘πŸ½πŸ‘πŸ½

  8. I enjoyed your piece very much. It expressed a transition that I’ve been going through over the past four years from an indicative to a subjunctive view of myself. Jeff Shaara, in Gods and Generals, had Chamberlain say, “I am not ready to grow old, to accept that what I am today is what I will always be.”

    • Hmm. A somewhat depressing perspective on aging. But that is very cool to hear how you’ve been experiencing your transition. May you go from strength to strength possibility. =) Thanks so much for sharing.

      • Uh oh, I didn’t mean to be gloomy with that! I actually took it optimistically to mean one can stave off growing old by refusing to accept that you are all you’ll ever be. The character was setting out on a new adventure because he wasn’t ready to stop growing. It was an encouragement to me to begin asking myself, “What if you were …?” instead of simply saying, “I am a …” I just started my blog in response to, “What if I were a writer?”

        Thanks for the blessing and encouragement! I’m really happy to have found your work.

      • Ha ha thanks for clarifying. That is wonderful that you sought to stretch your boundaries like that. All begins with the mind. I really appreciate the support. May you go from strength to strength.


  9. Diana,
    You are blowing my mind with these posts!
    I’ve just spent the last hour being opened to literary landscapes and vistas that I did not suspect existed. Who would have thought that verbs had moods! I knew that they had tenses – but moods?!
    And then you tell me that some languages have some moods and others do not have the corresponding modality? (Yes – I know – it was Phuc Tran) How is this even possible! To not have access to whole ways of speaking and thinking about things must be devastating. It makes me wonder what I am missing out on, by only being proficient in English!
    You have opened my eyes, Diana. I have learnt more about the English language in the last hour than all the years at school – thank you very much. πŸ™‚
    Like all good journeys though, it needed to end. My voyage through the forest of verb forms ended with this incomprehensible paragraph from Wikipedia:
    “In morphology and syntax, a clitic (/ˈklΙͺtα΅»k/ from Greek ΞΊΞ»ΞΉΟ„ΞΉΞΊΟŒΟ‚ klitikos, “inflexional”) is a morpheme that has syntactic characteristics of a word, but depends phonologically on another word or phrase. In this sense, it is syntactically independent but phonologically dependent, always attached to a host.[1] The term is derived from the Greek for “leaning”.[2] It is pronounced like an affix, but plays a syntactic role at the phrase level. In other words, clitics have the form of affixes, but the distribution of function words. For example, the contracted forms of the auxiliary verbs in I’m and we’ve are clitics.”
    As soon as I had finished reading this (twice), without any understanding whatsoever, I decided that it was time to set off for home where a comfy sofa and a mug of tea awaited me.
    I will be back to read more – when I have recovered my composure. πŸ™‚
    Kind regards,

    • Ha ha ha. Yes, many languages have mood. And no – I doubt that the people who’re missing it realize they’re missing it! (As with anything in life.)

      “It makes me wonder what I am missing out on, by only being proficient in English!” Exactly. I can tell you as a native Korean speaker that the English language I love is actually quite bland. I couldn’t tell you how many shades of THIN or BLUE Korean has, or all the shades of feeling this emotional language conveys. Eng is such a hodgepodge of tongues, a historical multihybrid that’s been clunked together somehow. Korea is for the most part a homogenous country with a history of oppression (as the oppressed) and suffering, that she will have forged a tongue pliable to the nuances of emotion.

      I am fascinated by the morsel from Wiki. Takes me back to my days as a linguistics major and minor in Classical Grk and Latin. I appreciate the heartfelt support and follow, Robert. You are doing one amazing job connecting out here. Keep up the great blogging.


  10. “This is my life. This is my body. We devise a better way and move toward it”. Very impressive and certainly provokes one to consider life circumstances, or not. I like the thought, “we devise a better way and move toward it” and it certainly the only way to claim a better circumstance. It’s admirable to accept the fate handed and move forward from that given situation. Afterall, it does not have to be permanent. I enjoyed the read very much. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and Tran’s TEDTalk!

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