I only hold so much credence in the colloquial saying, “If it is meant to be, it will be.” I believe this saying developed out of a need to abate the futility of one’s counterfactual thinking — you know, when you say to yourself, if only I had paused longer at the green light, I wouldn’t’ve been broadsided by that idiot in the BMW. Counterfactual thinking is when one imagines how life could have been different if only we had done one such thing or another.
Arguably, counterfactual thinking is only useful if it actually informs and shapes future behavior. Meaning, if by employing counterfactual thinking we deploy a metacognitive strategy to instruct the Self to be more aware of future seminal moments that pop up in our lives so that we actually can pause a little longer at that green light and avoid a similar tragedy, then this is a meaningful endeavor. However, and this is important here, exercises in counterfactual thinking only have value if we are able to readily and swiftly recognize when we are in fact at a schematically similar, literal or metaphorical crossroads.
Absent the ability to recognize this crossroad, if, rather, we happen to blithely saunter through said crossroad and repeat the same inane behavior of our past, I suppose we can give ourselves solace in humming a little Doris Day, “Que sera, sera! If it is meant to be, it will be!” And continue to blunder about our daily living, increasing the probability that we are, in fact, doomed to get broadsided all over again at some other intersection in some other part of our life. Candidly, I don’t like the odds.
True, I would like to have more faith in “If it is meant to be, it will be,” but I am afraid I am far to suspect that the forces of nature actually have my best interests at heart. I am not so sure that I am comfortable in betting on my future happiness via some random probability that good fortune rather than tragedy will be my steady traveling companion if left to its own fatalistic devices. Instead, I’d rather employ counterfactual thinking in the hopes that I will deftly recognize that beastly crossroads, should I have the misfortune to come upon it again.
But I know from experience that sometimes I don’t actually recognize important junctures in my life. Or if I do, I am paralyzed with indecision as to what is the best choice in that moment. Wait another second? Minute? Hour? Indefinitely? Absent the voice of God telling me the right answer, I subsequently proceed on a thorough analysis of what the likely outcome will be for each possible chosen variable that could impact my future happiness. I examine all kinds of things. When to get up, what to eat, what to wear, when to leave for the train, where to park my car, how fast I should walk to the train, whether to hop a cab or take a bus, whether to dash to Starbucks or risk a caffeine migraine, whether to challenge a professor or pretend that they are lucid even when they aren’t. I examine it all.
Yes, I do allow for some unexamined moments and some variations on a theme in my life, but largely my life is rather structured. So when I see looming on my life’s horizon the big CHANGE rearing its ugly head, I panic. I start dissecting all the possible choices that could lead to a variety of outcomes. I know I can’t control every outcome, I know I can’t plan for every variable of some unforeseen future. But I try. Lord knows, I try. It’s an effort in futility, I know, but, I say to myself: this time I will be smarter. And then I spin in the effort of proving that my intellectual prowess is greater than the Wheel of Fortune.
I tell you all this because I doubt very much that my process of discerning true and false affordances will change any time real soon. I will evaluate, and reevaluate, worry, and analyze, revise and revise again, until such time as I am forced to bring the moment to its crisis. As the narrator says in J. Alfred Prufrock, there will be “Time for you and time for me, And time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions, Before the taking of a toast and tea.”
But if you tell me everything will work out,
that everything will be ok,
that what will be will be because we will make it be,
then I will believe you.
And that will be enough.