People have been asking “What if?” questions since the dawn of time, I imagine. My guess is that the first time two amoeba existed, one turned to the other and said, “What would happen if you did that again?”. It’s human nature.*
When you were a kid, you were able to spend the time to play the game properly. You really got the chance to put the effort in, you got to milk the apparent turn by turn nature of history. However when playing with my brother, Just as I was trying to get him to consider just what would have been different if Caesar hadn’t quite got around to all his veni, vidi, vici-ing, Pete would say, “But what if the whole universe didn’t exist?”.
Of course as adults it easier to see that it’s very rare that the world turns on a single decision. Most things that we do are cumulations of decisions. Things conspire together. It’s closer to the gathering storm, as Churchill had it. A lot of times, a single attempt to buck the trend doesn’t achieve very much.
There is a more serious point to some of this which is to do with regrets. Oftentimes I hear people talking about their regrets and I wonder what they really mean. Very few things are closed forever.
People who wish they had learned to play the piano when they were kids but don’t do it now are kidding themselves. They could learn now but the same thing that made them not want to put in the effort when they were kids is the same thing stopping them now. Just go and do it. But remember that Myleene Klass is disapointed that, because of her media career and kids, she doesn’t get as much time to keep up with her piano these days. Nowadays, she can only manage to practice for one hour a day! Being good at something takes a lot of effort. So you’d better get started.
The other side is that people regret things that are part of what makes them who they are. You are, to an extent, the product of the decisions you’ve made. So instead of wishing you could go back and change something (and unless you’ve invented time travel, you can’t do that), you should take the information you learned and make sure you aren’t making the same decision again. Remember that most days you decide to do the same thing you did yesterday. You don’t think you are deciding, but you are.
I was reminded of all of this when I met a friend’s three year old son. Lukas was just at the stage of incessantly asking “What if” questions. He just wanted to understand how the whole world worked. Those simple things that children all learn, how do these things fit together?, what happens if they don’t? We all start learning it. Some of us just stop. Anyway, at the end of our trip, we were getting on the plane and Lukas was trying to come up with things that might mean we didn’t have to go.
He tried several versions:
“What if they have no fuel?”
“They’ll get more fuel.”
“What if they’ve forgotten your bags?”
“They haven’t forgotten our bags, look they’re there.”
And then he had it, “What if the pilot talks nonsense?”.
And what, I thought to myself, if the universe doesn’t exist?
* And from the sounds of things, amoeba nature too.