Recently, I read the The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. It’s the type of book that draws you in and keeps you close, submerging you completely in an alternate world. But there’s a twist: Barnett presents you with not just one, but three possible versions of this particular world.
The novel’s protagonists first meet at Cambridge University in 1958, when literature student Eva falls off her bike and into the path of Jim, who invites her for a drink. Eva accepts, and eventually goes on to marry Jim. This is version one. In version two, Eva turns down Jim’s invitation, carries on to her lecture, and instead ends up marrying her current boyfriend, David. And then, there’s version three: where Eva accepts and starts going out with Jim, before realising that she’s pregnant by David.
The novel opens with a quote from Anne Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage: “Sometimes he fantasised that at the end of his life, he would be shown a home movie of all the roads he had not taken, and where they would have led”, and it’s this movie that the author essentially allows you to watch play out – alternating between three versions of her characters' lives over the course of half a century, based on the outcomes of one split decision. Reading it, I was left contemplating the role of chance, fate and the different paths I too might have taken in life.
This possibility of ‘what might have been’ had you followed a different course is something that surely everyone (and not just those who share my overly contemplative disposition) has thought about at some time or another. In fact, it’s a notion so tantalising that it crops up time and time again in pop culture. You might even occasionally still hear people referring to a ‘Sliding Doors moment’ – a phrase that originates from the 1998 movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow. In it, her character runs for a train: if she catches it, she’ll find love; if she misses it, she won’t. Once you’ve seen this film, it’s forever impossible not to hesitate slightly before turning down an invitation, wondering if you might be about to miss your own metaphorical tube train.
Although I’ll sadly never know what’s happening to the Sian of an alternate universe – the one where I say yes to everything and never choose to stay at home watching Netflix instead – there are plenty of other instances where pop culture indulges you in these ‘what might have been’ scenarios. In Friends, there’s quite literally The One That Could Have Been, the episode where we see an alternate reality play out: instead of the kooky masseuse we know and love, Phoebe’s a chain-smoking, hard-nosed stockbroker; Ross is yet to discover his first wife Carol’s true sexuality; and instead of running off to Central Perk in her blancmange of a wedding gown, Rachel actually married Barry.
In Sex and the City, there’s a moment towards the end where an emotional Carrie tells the girls, “Last night, I had a thought. What if I had never met you guys?,” the implication of course being that without having met her “soul mates” Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte, her life would have turned out to be completely different. And then, of course, there’s perhaps the ultimate ‘what might have been’ movie: It’s a Wonderful Life. In this didactic festive film, a despairing George Bailey discovers what the town he’s lived in all his life would be like had he never been born, and none of the decisions he'd made had ever happened – an intriguing thought if ever there was one.
It's true that today we live in particularly – almost obsessively – self-reflective times, but considering 'what might have been' is certainly nothing new. In one of the early episodes of Orange is the New Black, prison inmate Taystee mentions the “road less travelled” in passing – a phrase first made famous by Robert Frost’s popular 1920 poem The Road Not Taken. It's also one which fellow inmate Piper Chapman can’t resist the opportunity to voice her irritation over. “You know, that doesn’t mean what everyone thinks it means”, she says.
“Ah shit, we’re about to get educated and shit,” Taystee complains. “No, no. I’m just saying,” Piper says, continuing with her lecture:
Everyone thinks the poem means to break away from the crowd and do your own thing, but if you read it, Frost is very clear that the two roads are exactly the same. He just chooses one at random, and then it’s only later at a dinner party when he’s talking about it that he tells everyone he chose the road less travelled by, but he’s lying. So the point of the poem is that everyone wants to look back and think that their choices matter. But in reality, shit just happens the way that it happens, and it doesn’t matter.
“I will probably kill her in her sleep tonight,” Tricia, another inmate, says. “Wake me up so I can watch,” Taystee responds.
Although this speech from middle class Piper is a pretty ill-advised one to make to a bunch of women locked up for the very specific choices they've made – choices that were certainly made more limited by their disadvantaged backgrounds – she is essentially right about the mass misreading of Frost's poem. Its final lines in particular (Two roads diverged in a wood, / and I – I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference) have been hijacked by our temptation to romanticise the past, and to see ourselves as brave and original, with the power to shape our own destiny, making "all the difference" and conveniently ignoring the possibility that in reality, our decisions probably make little to no difference, since (as Frost acknowledges in the second stanza) both of the possible paths were actually “just as fair.”
But when you’re young, and your future stretches out endlessly before you, it’s hard to avoid imbuing the decisions you make with some sort of importance, or to be able to easily accept that as Piper argues, “shit just happens the way it happens”. If I had chosen a different university, or degree, for instance, would I be doing the same job today? What about the halls I was in – my friends would have been completely different, so does that mean I would be too? And it goes on and on – would I have a different haircut? Would I like the same music? Would I still be single?
What if, what if, what if…the roads not taken stretch out in all kinds of winding directions. As TS Eliot wrote: “Footfalls in the memory / Down the passage which we did not take.” I’ve come to realise, though, that you shouldn’t let these footfalls get too loud. It's easy to worry that like with Gwyneth Paltrow and those sliding doors, even the smallest of decisions could affect your life forever. But ultimately, imagining what might have been is best left to the movies. And maybe, just as the straight-talking narrator in 500 Days of Summer tells us, “You can't ascribe great cosmic significance to a simple earthly event. Coincidence, that's all anything ever is, nothing more than coincidence....”