Important Decisions Do Less than We Think to Shape Our Lives
Can you change your life on a dime?
Posted Feb 11, 2010
The Lost Books of the Odyssey, a new novel which presents 44 alternative stories for Homer's Odyssey, has been getting good press for its inventive form. From what I've read about the book, it plays with questions of alternative lives, or "What if": "What if a character had thought or done something different at an important crossroads?" What if Odysseus had married Helen, and not Penelope? Would we then have had the Trojan Wars? The novel offers playful variations on a story that's been known in one way for ages.
Alternative lives are energizing things. There's something light or empowering about guessing at what would have happened if I had gone the other way at that fork in the road? "What if I hadn't gone into the bar ten years ago? I never would have met my ex-husband, and my whole life would have been happier."
But I tend to be a skeptic about the power of singular events to shape our lives. That is: Maybe our personalities within culture are like weighted dice. If you roll a pair of weighted dice ten times, they land in a pattern. Sometimes they land differently (exciting), but random situations don't change a pattern driven by a real force.
Personality within its cultural context is probably like a weight that drives us to what we experience. If Ms. X hadn't met her ex-husband on one night ten years ago, she was still the type of person who was attracted to that type of guy and bar, and who would have walked into a somewhat similar situation during that part of her life. There are too many men in bars for that not to be true. She would also, of course, change with time. But she'd change more slowly than through luck or atypical decisions at some "fork in the road." She'd change through what was typical, or through developing and editing her tendencies (changing the weight of the dice. It takes time). To say it more simply: Her life would not have been "less complicated and happier" simply because she hadn't entered the bar; in contrast, it was her self which drove her to the bar.
I don't mean that unexpected events don't change us radically. But our love of "free will" has probably endowed the old "fork in the roads" with an allure that's out of proportion. We do so many things in the day that the fact is that unusual circumstances probably matter less than personality does. The thing we choose at one crossroads doesn't override our tendency to choose that sort of thing.
I wonder what you think of your past "forks in the road." Could it "all have ended differently"? Does chance seem to play a big role in your life, or are you bound to live and change in a (generally) fated way?