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The Infinite Possibilities of Our Lives
And how every decision takes us on a journey we can't predict.
When you go to bed at night, do you look forward to having your coffee the next morning? Please tell me I’m not the only one. It feels like I’ve been drinking out of a firehose the past few weeks, but the one thing that makes me feel ready to take on the world is waking up during the soft-blue dawn light, making a cup of very hot, very strong coffee, and listening to the vibrant community of birds start their day outside my window. It’s so simple, but so rejuvenating, and it’s a good reminder that I like the ritual associated with drinking my coffee as much as I like the actual coffee.
Whatever makes you feel ready to take on the world, I hope you can make the time to do that for yourself today.
When I graduated college, I was interviewing for a yearlong fellowship in Kigali, Rwanda, where I’d get to work with a very cool organization that specialized in agricultural interventions to end child malnutrition. I had always been interested in this topic on a national and global level—I still am—and having completed my college thesis on global food security and nutrition (I won’t bore you with the details), this role felt like the perfect next step.
Once I completed the final interview, I let myself get excited about the prospect of living outside of the United States—for a year! while getting paid!—especially in Rwanda, a country I had learned about and wanted to visit from a young age (my precocious ten-year-old self wanted to be a wildlife biologist in East Africa. Ha.).
And then...I didn’t get the job.
They informed me that there were two final candidates, myself and someone else, and that they ultimately chose the other person because they had previous fundraising experience that could help the organization bring in more money. Capitalism, man…
It was a bummer in more ways than one. First, I wouldn’t get to work with this organization, and I wouldn’t get to live in Rwanda. Second, I had made a gamble and turned down a previous offer because I really wanted this job. So, I lost both that job opportunity and this one. Third, I had no idea how I was going to make money because I had no other job prospects lined up. I cannot emphasize how panicky that made me feel, especially as a busy overachiever with big dreams and student loans. So, with my college degree in hand (an enormous privilege in and of itself), I started my next chapter with zero idea what would be on the next page.
After regrouping and applying to more jobs in the global food security space, all of which led nowhere, I decided to use some of my savings to buy a one-way ticket to Vietnam and backpack through Southeast Asia by myself. I wanted to see the world, and I knew I could live and travel on a tiny budget in that region. I also understood that this might be one of the few times in my life where I could travel with no time constraints or care obligations; I had no job, no partner, no kids, no pet, and no apartment. I had a rare opportunity to do whatever I wanted. It was liberating!
That backpacking adventure is a story for another time, but after 5.5 weeks of travel, 4 countries, a wicked case of typhoid, an arduous and sickly trip home, two days in a U.S. emergency room, and a monthlong quarantine back home in Chicago, I emerged with a broadened and sharpened worldview, ready to try again. And I was just so relieved to be healthy.
Fast forward a few months and I ultimately got a job in D.C., where, 10 days after arriving in the city, I subsequently met my partner Aaron, who sat at the desk across from me at work. Fast forward a bit more, and now we’ve been together five years, and we’ve since moved to Seattle, lived in several different homes, changed jobs multiple times, watched friends move away, made new friends, navigated life’s challenges, and embraced new adventures we never thought we’d have in this life. We also have a cat! (She’s perfect.)
I’m glossing over so many details there, and subsequently flattening my life into a deceptively neat little narrative, but the one detail I can’t shake is this: If I had been offered that fellowship in Rwanda, my life as it is now wouldn’t exist.
I wouldn’t have solo backpacked around the world; I wouldn’t have gotten typhoid; I wouldn’t have had to live at home and go to an infectious disease doctor every week for two months to ensure I wouldn’t become a carrier of typhoid; I wouldn’t have applied to or landed the job in D.C.; I likely wouldn’t have moved to D.C., at least at that time; I wouldn’t have met Aaron; I wouldn’t have moved to Seattle; I wouldn’t get to squeeze my fluffy cat every day; and so many other things I wouldn’t get to do or people I wouldn’t get to know if I had gotten that fellowship.
It’s wild when I think about how much of my life was shaped by a stranger’s decision not to give me a job—and by the subsequent decisions I made because of that decision.
Knowing what I know now, I am so glad I didn’t get that job. Not because it wouldn’t have been an incredible experience, but because it would’ve prevented me from aspects of my life that bring me so much joy and fulfillment today. Of course, I couldn’t have known that then. And I’m sure if I had landed that job, I would’ve had different, incredible experiences that I can’t begin to fathom now. It’s all relative.
The reason I’m thinking about all this is because I just finished a novel called The Midnight Library. In it, the protagonist Nora is living a life she feels is full of misery and regret. She feels like she has nothing left to live for and just as she’s about to give up, she suddenly finds herself in a place called the Midnight Library. I’ll let the book jacket take it from here:
“The books in the Midnight Library enable Nora to live as if she had done things differently. Each one contains a different life, a possible world in which she made different choices that played out in an infinite number of ways, affecting everyone she knew as well as many people she never met. With the help of an old friend, she can now undo every decision she regrets as she tries to work out her perfect life. But things aren’t always what she imagined they’d be … she must answer the ultimate question: What is the best way to live?”
It's an excellent book, in part because it pushes the reader to acknowledge both the hefty weight and the buoyant insignificance of our decisions. The infinite possibilities that we’re confronted with daily are both a refreshing reality and a crushing reminder that life is both freed and bound by our decisions. It’s simultaneously reassuring and daunting.
On the one hand, we can feel lighter knowing that every decision leads us down a new path that we can’t possibly predict or control. When we’re focused only on what’s in front of us, we can just focus on making decisions with the information and tools we have at hand. This allows us to approach every decision, however cautiously, as an opportunity to learn and explore—rather than an obstacle marked by stress and fear. It’s this feeling that reminds us we’re doing our best with the cards we’ve been dealt, while actively crafting a life that feels genuine to the chapter we’re in. We only know what we know.
On the other, we can feel heavier knowing that the path we’re walking may lead us away from another path we want to explore. We don’t know if the sum of our decisions will cause those paths to converge or if they’ll help form new paths we haven’t even thought of yet. It is this feeling that causes us to ruminate on what “could’ve been” or what will be, both largely uncontrollable factors. This feeling can whisk us away from our present lives by focusing our attention on some largely abstract life that we don’t know would turn out in the way we imagine.
Both of these are complicated feelings, but I think both can serve a purpose. They remind me of this passage in this fabulous article, “What If You Could Do It All Over” by Joshua Rothman:
“Swept up in our real lives, we quickly forget about the unreal ones. Still, there will be moments when, for good or for ill, we feel confronted by our unrealized possibilities; they may even, through their persistence, shape us. Practitioners of mindfulness tell us that we should look away, returning our gaze to the actual, the here and now. But we might have the opposite impulse, as Miller does. He wants us to wander in the hall of mirrors—to let our imagined selves “linger longer and say more.” What can our unreal selves say about our real ones?”
I love that last question. What do your unreal selves say about your real ones?
Do you ever think about your unlived lives? Do they excite you, frighten you, motivate you, disappoint you, surprise you? Do they ever encourage you to think bigger about your own life, right now?
Or do you think ruminating on your unlived lives can be dangerous and a waste of time? Or maybe you fall somewhere in the middle? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Anyway, I love thinking about how a seemingly small decision helped paint the life I live today. I’m so grateful for it, and while I don’t want a different life than the one I have now, sometimes I imagine what my life would’ve looked like if I maintained my childhood dream of say, becoming a wildlife biologist. If I had a chance to enter the Midnight Library, I think I’d want to read a few chapters of that book. But I guess then I probably wouldn’t be writing Second Breakfast, and that thought makes me sad.
Because I’m so glad to be here, in your inbox, chatting into the void about all sorts of things. And I’m so glad you’re here, too.
Hope your day is filled with all sorts of exciting possibilities.
See you next week,