Have you ever looked back on your life or a particular memory and thought wow…that’s very nearly how my life ended up. Or perhaps “went” would be better suited to describing such a thought than the words “ended up,” since one decision is not so much an ending as it is an avenue. A course changer. The force that beckons us in one direction, gently taking our lives by the hand and leading them onto adjacent, untraveled paths.
It’s a bit bizarre to look at one’s life in such a way. We often scrutinize our past, rather than just observe it. Scrutiny really has no place because what’s done is done, and it all happened perfectly. Maybe not in theory, but in fact. It happened perfectly because it’s irrevocable, so why dub it anything but? Because regret is jet fuel for the emotionally wounded. It’s the intangible equivalent of what I imagine is the satisfying slice of skin for a cutter. Regret is toxic.
But so is living in the past. Toxic, that is. Living in the past, clinging to “the way things were,” pining over a more youthful face, an old flame, a simpler time, a career…it’s toxic to believe we were ever better than we are now, in this very moment. To observe one’s past, as free of judgment as possible, is one thing. To regret and or cling is another altogether.
Have you ever been in a relationship where you knew the ship was sinking but you were helpless to jump off? Have you ever thought to yourself, “I will go down with this ship,” (maybe even sung the words along with Jewel? I won’t judge) against your wiser, better, knowing instincts? I have. I haven’t, fortunately, gone down with any of my ships but I have certainly had the thought. I’ve certainly had the intention.
I was walking the dog the other day and my mind was going in a hundred different directions, as usual. The amount of things I can think about in that hour walk is really quite staggering. As my consciousness bounced along, audacious and overeager as a neon green tennis ball, I felt it thud into a thicker, darker thought. Reminiscence. An old relationship. Something in the curve of the sidewalk, the fumes of a car idling, the sideways shaft of light piercing portly clouds, I don’t know what exactly it was but something made me think of him. Of us. Of what we were. Boom, instantly I found myself in that shadowy forest, the toxic river of reinventing what was. That’s really what it is, after all, a reinvention. Nothing is ever as perfect as it is in a memory.
What came to my mind this time, however, was a more realistic pitch of the situation. I remembered who I was in that relationship, in that time, all those years ago. I saw clearly what parts of myself I keenly forfeited, what discovered had I stayed in that boat. I truly caught a rare glimpse of how much better off I am for having jumped ship. The realization that the path I’m currently on would not have been an opportunity, simply would not have found its way onto my radar in the capacity it has, smacked me right between the eyes. The corners of my mouth turned up. I wondered what little moments, what triggers had knocked down the trail of dominoes that are my life, causing one event after another. I wondered what divine coin, spinning wildly on its axis, landed heads or tails and led me down the various hallways I’ve traveled.
I’ve always been deeply intrigued by the “Butterfly Effect.” It, in theory, conceptualizes how everything could turn out differently based on one event. The philosophy itself was birthed by Edward Lorenz, who theorized that the genesis of a hurricane was conditional on the flapping of a butterfly’s wings weeks prior. Think about that. It’s referred to as the “sensitive dependency on initial conditions,” where essentially a tiny little event or change of course can create a ripple effect changing life on a much larger scale down the road. Fascinating, no?
The point of this detailed little debriefing is that I believe fiercely in the beauty of the butterfly effect. What pebble fell when I was five years old that, at eleven, caused a splash? What happened to an ancestor that is now reflected in my existence? What happened in a past life that is now triggering my direction in this life?
The Butterfly Effect is insanely cool, frankly put. Sure, it can sometimes result in an ugly, quaking present experience, but I also believe fiercely that everything happens exactly as it’s meant to. Even the awful stuff. Spoken truly by someone who’s (blessedly) had relatively little trauma in her life, generally speaking.
Just this morning I was talking on the phone with my brilliant, self-made, warrior of a soul sister, and we got onto the weighty topic of life. I couldn’t help but be blown away by how grounded and stable she sounded. We’ve known each other for close to twenty years, since were wee little tangle-haired babes, and five years ago her life was tipped on its head. She lost her father suddenly, to death, and her mother shortly thereafter, to drugs. Needless to say, losing both parents practically at once sent her into a grief spiral. She didn’t hit any “rock bottom,” she really fought through the horrendously awful experience. The drama was minimal but the suffering intense.
Hearing my best friend say today that she believes losing her parents is the best thing that’s ever happened to her just amplified this idea that’s been spinning around my mind for days. She quickly qualified that what she meant by that is that she had to become her own person. Face her demons. Take care of herself. Emancipate herself. She found herself, in the thick of the horrific ultimatum she was handed by life. She became the person she’s becoming.
My friend gets it. She gets what I’m trying to convey in saying “it all happens as it’s meant to,” and she has been through hell! The suffering of my lifetime is dwarfed by the trials and tribulations she’s survived in just the past five years, but we’re still on the same page. She still believes to her core, despite the pain she’s endured, that she would not be nearly as alive, secure and stable had things not gone exactly as they went. I’m in awe of her resilience, and I think it illustrates beautifully the point I’m trying to make.
Whether the thoughts are about why a tragedy happened and the what ifs that are tangled up in such an experience or whether they’re about what would have happened had I married my ex, frankly they’re one and the same. Incomparable, but still cut of the same cloth. Still a cookie cutter thought embedding us in the past.
So what happens for us when we look back on our lives and see the myriad of ways things could have gone? Is there regret? Doubt? Fear? Relief? Is there intense love for the person we’ve become? I hope the latter, for us all, I hope for it fiercely. Because that’s truly the only reaction that serves us. Dissecting what’s come and gone can be awfully entertaining, it can be masochistic and torturous, or it can be as luxurious and decadent as watching a favorite movie. Let me be clear in saying that I’m not suggesting we forgo memories, not at all. Memories are a huge part of who we are, the basis of our life’s gilded frame. But we can’t live in them, whether they’re good or bad. We can’t cling to them, regret them, pine for them. Well, we can, but doing so is to forfeit the present moment.
The present moment is the most delicious offering life has for us. It’s all we have, in essence. We’re not promised tomorrow and, while we have the memories of yesterday, the past is at once shadowed by our own perception. Instantly veiled by a lens we cast rather than the crystal clarity of truth. We like to color memories, whether we realize it or not.
So let’s indulge in the deliciousness of this present moment. Let’s treat ourselves to the extravagant idea that a butterfly flapping its wings three weeks ago was what triggered the deluge of cathartic tears this morning in front of our bathroom mirror…or the rupture of the sky, lavishing the parched ground with rain…or the carefully erected wall of denial holding us back from what we know we must do. Let’s surrender to the simple truth that what has come and passed is no longer; what’s yet to happen is suspended in Her hands; what we can hold, warm and vibrating, in our hands right now is the right now. What we have is this avenue beneath our feet, the intuitive force beckoning us ahead, and our own little furiously flapping butterfly wings.