Photo by Cindy Tang on Unsplash

In Praise of Near-Misses

What might have been might have been worse.

A long time ago I got a divorce. It was traumatic, naturally. It was messy and upsetting for everyone. And for years afterwards, I was haunted by this thing that had occurred long before there was a house, or kids, or any kind of legal contract.

I was standing at the bottom of the stairs in that crappy little rental house next door to the mafia boss. (I mean, he was in the garbage business and certainly TALKED like a mobster.) I was THIS CLOSE to ending the relationship. I remember saying, “We’re done.”

But we weren’t. We stayed together for another 7 or 8 years. And for a long time, after our breakup, I was visited by tsunamis of regret. That scene at the bottom of the stairs would flash into my head, and I’d think “WHY? Why didn’t I leave then? I could have spared us all a lot of grief.”

But was that true? Could I have spared us anything?

If you’re in a car accident, your first thought may be, “I wish I’d stopped to answer the damned phone — then I wouldn’t have been at the intersection when that truck blew through a red light.”

It’s tempting to think you could have avoided calamity if you’d just… (Stopped to pet the cat, skipped the second encore, bought the more expensive version, waited for better weather.) As though your choices could forestall catastrophe.

Which in some cases I suppose they might. I’m thinking here of “I wish I’d waited until the check cleared, the light turned green, I’d listened to the safety instructions…” It’s not like we don’t make decisions that matter.

But how do you know that the alternative would have been so much better?

Too often choices seem binary. I’ll have the chicken, or I’ll have the steak. I’ll buy the Volvo, or I’ll buy the Prius. I’ll turn left or I’ll turn right. Which gives us the false sense that there is a right answer and a wrong answer. But if the chicken is dry, maybe the steak is over-seasoned. Maybe a motorcycle would suit you better than a car.

Maybe there is no best choice.

And maybe you will never know.

I went to a very small liberal arts college in Colorado. I almost went to a huge public university in Toronto. Did I make the right choice? There’s no way to know. Had I gone to the U of T my life would look totally different. Maybe it would be better.

Maybe there is no better.

It’s easy to spend a lot of time agonizing over the path forward. I’ve gotten to the point at which making the decision seems more important than making the right decision. It’s in our nature to assume that the road not taken would have yielded better results, but that’s just wishful thinking.

(Even if your brother made that other choice and look at how well things turned out for HIM.) That’s not how life works. Ten people can follow the same path and not have the same outcome.

Here’s my revolutionary method for feeling OK about the choices I’ve made:

I practice gratitude. And not just for all the amazing things I’ve got going for me, though I do a LOT of that. I’m talking about gratitude for the misfortunes I’ve avoided.

Gratitude for the accidents that haven’t befallen me. The sick beds I haven’t had to visit. The funerals I haven’t attended. The middle of the night phone calls I never received. The diagnosis that wasn’t made. The father who didn’t leave. The pill that wasn’t slipped into my drink. The blow that didn’t land. The lawyers I haven’t had to hire. The specialists who were never called in.

When I look at it that way, it appears that I have had the greatest of luck — the wind is ever at my back and fortune favors me every step of the way.

I’ve made some decisions that have led to difficulties. To losing money. To heartbreak. Would life have been better or easier if I’d chosen differently? Maybe, maybe not. But here I am.

As Yoda said, “Each choice, the branch of a tree is: what looked like a decision, is after only a pattern of growth.”



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Julia Williamson

Julia Williamson


Feminist, optimist, nonconforming pleaser and rebel. I know. I mostly write about getting rid of things you hate, both physical and intangible.