When we see a person walking on the side of the road muttering about how they are Elvis, we may shake our heads and feel pity for them. This person has convinced himself that he is living another life. And this person is happy in that life.
Our pity is often rooted in a sense that we are not at all like that person. Yet many of us are little different. We may still primarily identify with the life we are living. But in our heads, we play out dozens of what-if scenarios about how things should be or could have been. We imagine ourselves living many lives, often settling on a favorite one where we’ve made different choices that have left us happier.
We may not think we’re Elvis. But we’re not too far from that, either. We have the same tendency to engage in false realities and wishful thinking.
There’s a cancerous line of conversation surrounding multiple lives that erodes our sense of wholeness nearly constantly. You see this frequently in careers, relationships, and other major life choices. It’s this idea that things could have gone differently if we’d made different decisions. It’s the idea that we made the wrong choice years ago, and that this is the source of our discontent.
We say things like, “If I’d gone to college things would have gone a lot easier for me.” Or, “If I hadn’t moved to Ohio, I would have so many more friends” Or, “If my parents had put me in a better college, I would be a brilliant academic right now.”
A friend of mine who got divorced when he joined the Marines told me, “If I’d never joined the Marines, I’d still be married to her today.”
We are always thinking things could have–no–should have gone differently. And if they’d gone differently, we would be happier, more fulfilled, and better off than we are today.
But that’s just not the case. For all of our delusions of grandeur, we actually have no way of knowing whether or not our life would have turned out better in an alternate life. It’s just as likely that the things we think would have made our lives better would in fact have made them worse. The job you think would have made you happier may have made you miserable. The relationship you think you were destined for may have been your undoing.There’s no way to know.
But even more importantly, this thinking is madness–quite literally. We play this video in our heads of ourselves as somebody else. Well, there is only one of you. And the you that exists is the only one that will ever exist. Your life and the story that has played out is the only one that could ever be because it’s the only one that will ever be. All other thinking of your life from the context of what could have been is useless, vain, and will make you miserable.
Have you ever been at a restaurant and torn between two options, like a meatball sub and a grilled chicken sandwich? The worst thing that could ever happen would be for you to order one and the person across from you to order the other. Because at that point, there’s a 50/50 chance your meal is ruined. Inevitably, you may sneak a bite from your friend’s meal. At that point the alternative meal will either be better or worse. If it’s better, you get virtually no satisfaction because, after all, that’s why you chose it. But if you chose the worse of the two options, you’ll spend the rest of your meal kicking yourself for not choosing the other one.
When we hold our alternate lives in our mind like this, it’s like we’re at the restaurant once more. Only this time, the odds aren’t 50/50 that we’ll have a bad outcome. Because in our minds, we always romanticize what might have been. We dream lustily about careers and ambitions we could have chased or romantic partners we could have been with. And inevitably, in our imagination, we are always happier than we currently are. It nearly always turns out “better” and we thus always end up with a soggy meatball sub.
Our minds are always stacking the happiness deck against ourselves, as our minds love to consider the other possibilities that could have happened.
Underlying this type of thinking is regret. There is a healthy place for regret in your life. And then there’s the unhealthy, toxic side of regret. It’s the regret where you constantly feel like you’re missing out because you didn’t choose the right path in your choose-your-own-adventure novel. It’s the kind of regret that drives people to abuse substances and get angry. It’s the kind of regret that says the world owes you something and it’s refusing to pay.
At the root of this type of regret is this belief that you chose the wrong path, which manifests itself in a form of self-loathing and self-hatred that inevitably leaks its way onto everything you touch. It’s not always explicit. And it is seductive. It’s seductive because there’s an element of truth to it. After all, the best lies always hide behind a degree of truth.
There is truth to the fact that you do appear to have the power to choose your outcomes. Whether you truly do or do not is hotly debated (and, frankly, we will never know because we can never test this). And it’s thus easy to consider what might have been if we’d made different choices.
The ancient Stoic philosophers held insight into this dilemma, and I was introduced to their solution last year in William B. Irving’s book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. In the book, Irving discusses the Stoic’s ideas about fate. The Stoics believed all of life was controlled by the Fates, which were three gods. Yet while these Stoics believed past outcomes were ultimately controlled by the Fates, they believed they could influence the future.
To put it another way, the Stoics believed the past was inevitable, uncontrollable, and had to be that way. Yet at the same time, they believed they could influence and change the future. This is clearly a paradox. But at the same time, there’s wisdom here.
Imagine for a moment if you believed that all of your life experiences must have had to happen exactly the way they did because some cosmic force beyond your control decided it. In a sense, that’s perfectly true. But at the same time, you still have the power to choose in the present. And this is where your fatalism must end. You must accept what is about you and your history. You can’t change it. Fighting it will make you miserable. You must instead strive and work and embrace the challenge of making the best choices in the future.
You could have been a thousand different people over the course of your life. You could have chosen a different school to attend. You could have made different friends. You could have chosen a different career. You could have tried harder and been better. That’s true.
While all of those things could have been true, they are not the truth. The truth is the sum of the choices you’ve made that have led you to this moment. You cannot change the past and thus you should instead embrace the present.
The first step to embracing what truly is involves letting go of what isn’t. Your could-haves and should-haves are all a myth and a lie and only exist in your own mind. There’s no such thing as what could have been. There is no such thing as what should have been. There is only what is. And when you embrace what is, you embrace your life. Once you accept what truly is, you’ll be able to be more present and more at peace.
Let your mind wander for a moment. Go back to your biggest mistakes. Go back to your biggest sources of hurt and loss. Go back and survey them in their entirety.
You may wish things had gone differently, but they didn’t.
You may wish you’d made different choices, but you didn’t.
You may wish other people hadn’t hurt you, but they did.
You may wish the story had played out differently, but it doesn’t.
It won’t. It can’t.
You only have one life to live. This is a cliche. But it’s profoundly true. The fact that you only have one life to live means there is no you without your past. The previous chapters in the book all result in you being here and now. There is nothing else. There’s no other version of the story–that’s just a lie in your head. However, your story is only halfway written. You get to write the next chapter by the choices you make today.
By wishing you were living an alternate life, you are profoundly hurting the life you have right now. You are missing out on the joy of the moment, trading it instead for an unsteady restlessness in your mind. You are robbing yourself of vibrant relationships with those around you, as these relationships likely wouldn’t exist in your preferred alternate life. You are bartering the authentic in exchange for the imitation. You are trading the vibrancy of what is for the false illusion of what could have been.
That’s why you need to let your alternate lives die. Because this is the only life you get. Now, go live it.