What if you could do it all over again?


Once in another life I was a founder of technology. It was in the late 90s, when the web was young, and everyone was trying to cash in on the dot-com boom. In college, two of my dorm mates and I found out that we each started an internet business in high school, and we merged them into one teenage mega-corporation. For about six hundred dollars a month, we rented office space in the basement of a building in the city. We created websites and software for an early dating service, an insurance claims processing company, and an online store where customers could “bargain” with a cartoon avatar for overstock products. I lived big, spending the money I earned on school fees, food, and the stereo.

In 1999, our second year, we hit hard. A company that has wired mid-range office buildings with high-speed internet hired us to create a collaborative working environment for its customers: Slack, avant la lettre. It was a huge project, given to a few students through a combination of recklessness and charity. We were terrified of taking on a job we couldn’t handle, but we also felt we were on the right track to creating something innovative. We were over time and on budget until the C suite demanded a demo, which we built. Newly confident, we hired our friends and used our corporate AmEx to spend a “business dinner” at Nobu. Unlike other kids, who was what – socializing? – I had a business card that said “Creative Director”. After midnight in our dark office, I tucked my Aeron chair into my IKEA desktop, queued Nine Inch Nails in Winamp, scrolled through the code, looked at the pixels, and entered the matrix. After my client work was done, I wrote short stories for my creative writing workshops. Often times, I would sleep on the futon in the office, waking up to loot the vending machine next to the loading dock, where a homeless man lived with his cart.

I loved this entrepreneurial existence – its ambition, its rambling speed and close to the future. I thought I could move to San Francisco and work in technology. I saw a path, an opening in life. But, when the dot-com bubble burst, our client’s business was bought out by a company that was bought out by another company that didn’t want what we had done. Our invoices remained unpaid. It was senior year – a fork in the road. We closed our business and left the office. A few days before graduation, when I was about to pay my school fees, a girl in the elevator struck up a conversation, then went down to her floor; on my descent she walked a second time and our conversation continued. We started dating and then we went to graduate school in English together. We got married, I became a journalist, and we had a son. I now have a life, a world, a story. I am me, not him, whoever he is.

“The idea that I may have become someone else is so bland that dwelling on it sometimes seems silly,” writes literature scholar Andrew H. Miller, in “”On Not Being Someone Else: Stories From Our Unleaded Lives(Harvard). Yet, formulated in the right way, the thought has an insistent and strange magnetism. Miller’s book is, among other things, a collection of expressions of wonder about what might have been. Miller quotes Clifford Geertz, who in “Interpreting cultures“, wrote that” one of the most significant facts about us is perhaps that we all start with the natural equipment to live a thousand types of life, but end up having only one alone. ”He quotes critic William Empson:“ There is more in the child than any man could keep. ”We have unlived lives for all kinds of reasons: because we make choices; because society forces us, because events force our hand, above all, because we are singular individuals, more and more with time. “As growth occurs, it shrinks,” writes Miller. “The possibilities of the plural evaporate.” It’s painful, but it’s a strange, hypothetical, paradoxical kind of pain. Even though we regret who we haven’t become, we value who we are. We seem to find one. sense of what never happened Our self-portraits use a lot of negative space.

For some people, imagining unlived lives is torture, even a gateway to crisis. Miller tells the story of Spencer Brydon, the protagonist of Henry James’ tale “The happy corner. As a young man, Brydon left America for Europe, where he ‘followed strange paths and worshiped strange gods’, living as a playboy. Three decades later, he returned to New York, where he takes stock of his peers. Many of them are wealthy, powerful or respected; they have built substantial lives. Brydon, who is single and only superficially accomplished, begins to wonder how it would have been if he had stayed Has he become a successful businessman? Has married his friend Alice, with whom he has reconnected? He begins to spend his nights prowling the halls of his childhood home, convinced that the ghost of the man that he might have been wandering there. Eventually, he encounters a version of himself: a Brydon apparition, with a stark face and two missing fingers, striding forward in “a rage of personality.” Looking at him, Brydon passes out. He wakes up with his head cradled in Alice’s lap, and surrenders to count that he loves her: this life better than that one!

Most of us aren’t as intensely haunted by people as we might have been. But, maybe for a morning or a month, our lives can still vibrate knowing it could have been otherwise. “You can find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful woman”, David Byrne sings, in the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime”. “And you may be wondering, ‘Well, how did I get here? “Perhaps you suddenly feel rushed through your life and wonder if you could have shaped it differently. Maybe you suddenly remember, like Hilary mantel did that, that you have another self “filed in a drawer of your consciousness, like news that wouldn’t work after the first few lines.” Today your life is irritating, like an ill-fitting garment; you can’t forget it’s there. “You might be like, ‘This is not my beautiful house. . . . She’s not my beautiful wife, ”sings Byrne.

We can imagine specific lives not lived for ourselves, as artists, teachers or technical brothers; I have a lawyer friend who owns a bar in Red Hook. Or we may just be drawn to the possibility itself, as in the poem “The Road Not Taken”: when Robert Frost tells us that choosing one path over another made “all the difference”, whatever the difference. . Carl Dennis’ poem “The God Who Loves You” tries to make this difference concrete. Dennis asks his protagonist, a middle-aged real estate agent a question: “What would have happened / Did you go to your second choice for college”? Another roommate, another spouse, another job: could it all have added up to “a life of thirty points above the life you live / On any scale of satisfaction”? Only “the god who loves you” knows for sure. It is a disturbing thought; Dennis suggests we have mercy on this omniscient god, “pacing his murky room, plagued by alternatives / You are spared from ignorance.

Carried away by our real lives, we quickly forget the unreal. Yet there will be times when, for better or for worse, we will feel confronted with our unrealized possibilities; they can even, by their persistence, shape us. Mindfulness practitioners tell us that we should look away, looking back to the real, the here and now. But we could have the opposite impetus, as Miller does. He wants us to wander the Hall of Mirrors, to let our imaginations “linger longer and say more”. What can our unreal self say about our real self?

Their mere presence in our minds can reveal something about the way we live: “Unguided lives are a largely modern concern,” Miller writes. In the past, for the most part, people lived the lives of their parents, or the lives decreed by fates. Today we are trying to forge our own paths. The difference is reflected in the stories we tell ourselves. In the Iliad, Achilles chooses between two clearly defined destinies, designed by the gods and predicted in advance: he can either fight and die in Troy, or live a long and boring life. (In the end, he chooses to fight.) But the world we live in isn’t that well organized. Achilles didn’t have to wonder if he should have been in pre-med or pre-law; we make such decisions knowing that they could shape our lives.

Among the laity, the absence of the afterlife raises the stakes. In “Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life“warns psychologist Adam Phillips that” once the next life – the better life, the fuller life – is to be in this one, we have a huge job to do. “Given a single chance to exist, we owe it to ourselves to reach the goal; we must not only survive but thrive. It is no wonder that for many of us” the story of our lives becomes here. ‘story of the lives we have been prevented from living’.

It is likely, Miller thinks, that capitalism, “with its isolation from individuals and its accelerated generation of choice and opportunity,” has increased the number of our unlived lives. “The elevation of choice as an absolute good, the experience of chance as a strange affront, the increasing number of exciting and mind-numbing decisions we must make, examining the past to improve future outcomes” —all it “feeds the people we” don’t. Advertisers sell us things by making us imagine better versions of ourselves, even if there is only one life to live: that is “YOLO + FOMOA friend says to Miller, summing it up nicely. The nature of the work makes the problem worse. ladders of success. ”You make your choice, renouncing others: year after year, you“ climb into your future ”, rethinking unclimbed ladders.


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