There is No “Might Have Been”: The Multiplicity of Goods and Learning to Affirm Reality

By Emily Lehman

“There would be just one right thing, without alternatives: he must do that.”

-William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

“I took the road less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

-Robert Frost, “The Road Less Traveled”

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen, / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”

-John Greenleaf Whittier, “Maud Muller”

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

-John 11:21

This is my last article for The Hillsdale Forum. And that, perhaps, is the most lackluster opening line of my published career; but the background is important for what I want to leave you with, and the fact that I am leaving, though it needn’t matter to most, matters to me, and matters for what I have to say.

We go to a school vibrant with life. Everywhere you turn, people are fighting with makeshift weapons, studying in romantic tension, spending excessive amounts of time debating predestination, practicing, reading, learning, singing, talking, talking, talking. When we look at the outside world, we doubt that there is as much going on “out there” as we have going on “in here” — and, in a way, this is absolutely true. The real world is not always a place where you can’t make it to your friend’s choir concert because you’re playing at Coffeehouse and studying for a midterm at the same time while your other friends can’t come because they’re in a one-act play that rehearses the alternate Thursdays they don’t learn self-defense. There are a lot of good things happening around here. And we can’t do them all at the same time.

Enter the subjunctive. I could have been there. I should have seen that. I would have done that. Whether we want to do something or not, there is always lingering in the back of the mind of the Hillsdale student that she could have been doing something else, usually something extremely valuable. Every once in a while that tension becomes climactic, when one has to make a really difficult decision between two beautiful things, neither of which one would want to miss under any other circumstances. As a freshman, I was firmly convinced that the will of God should be clear, even in situations like these. There would be one thing or the other, and one would be the right thing to do, while the other would be the wrong thing. And then, gradually, with experience after experience, I realized that that’s just not true. Sometimes there are two things to do, you can’t do both, and whatever you decide on can still be good. Realizing that human life isn’t a two-track system of good things and evil things with no legitimately debatable options is a major breakthrough, but it isn’t the main thing I want to talk about here.

I want to talk about that track in your imagination that initially runs parallel to reality, the one that veers further and further away from what actually happened into the mysterious world of What Might Have Been. And I want to convince you that you don’t need to go down that track. Let it rot; your mental landscape will be brighter.

There’s a tendency, after or before one makes a decision between two competing good things, to play out mentally the logical conclusions that would have followed upon the other decision. In a way, we have to do this to make a decision—we have to think about what would happen next. Especially after the decision has been made, though, it’s easy to fall into doing this more than is at all necessary.  There is not, really, any “might have been.” It’s impossible to know what might have happened, because human lives don’t work like logical conclusions. More often than not, what we think will happen does not happen; why should our logical reasonings be suddenly sound when we venture rashly into counterfactuals? The mystery of human action is, though foreknown by God, not the logical outcome of various divine algorithms; it is truly free. God “doesn’t know” what “would have happened” because what would have happened simply doesn’t exist. Knowledge of the truth is conformity of the mind to what is, not to what isn’t.

It’s simple, but it’s hard to understand, because of the way our human minds work. If I had been there, he would have made it. If I hadn’t crossed that street—if I had asked that girl out—if I hadn’t left the house that day—all these ways of thinking are appealing, until we realize that they’re paralyzing. As soon as one begins to follow the track of What Might Have Been, every bend in the road makes another fork until it’s a labyrinth. Countless counterfactuals disorient us. Between the Scylla and Charybdis of the perfect and abysmal lives one might have lived, one forgets a very important life: the real one. Whether we comfort ourselves with the thought that things could always be worse (like Puddleglum in The Silver Chair) or live constantly in an ideal, imaginary world of our own making, we can all too easily find ourselves distracted by the fairy lights of falsity and forget to appreciate the only reality there is. Whether we are seniors having finally settled on a direction in which we’ll sail out of harbor or freshmen who signed up for too many things at the Source, it is a great tragedy to forget to live the only life we really have.

In a bizarre and beautiful movie called Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, Mr. Magorium, the eccentric owner of a magical toy store, announces one day that he is going to die soon. His distressed assistant, Molly Mahoney, runs him all around the city doing silly things, jumping on the beds in a sofa store, dancing on bubble wrap, calling on a pay phone, in an endeavor to prove to him that it isn’t time for him to die yet, that he has to stay.  Mr. Magorium exclaims, while dancing on bubble wrap, “What a great last day! . . . Mahoney, why have you done all this?” She responds, “I wanted you to see all the little things you’re gonna miss if you leave.” Mr. Magorium is mystified: “I thought this was to be the best last day of anyone who ever lived.” Where Mahoney emphasizes something with which we’re all too familiar (the fear of missing out) Mr. Magorium affirms, wholeheartedly, what is. As we live out one more month—or perhaps, by the time you read this, one more week—at Hillsdale, let’s make every day the best last day. Reality ought to be affirmed, not shoved aside for imaginary substitutions; and if we live in grief for what never was or anticipation of what may never be, we miss reality. And, at this little college, reality is pretty amazing.

In C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian,  Lucy asks Aslan a counterfactual question:

“You mean,”said Lucy rather faintly, “that it would have turned out all right – somehow? But how? Please, Aslan! Am I not to know?”

“To know what would have happened, child?” said Aslan. “No. Nobody is ever told that.”

“Oh dear,”said Lucy.

“But anyone can find out what will happen,” said Aslan. “If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must all get up at once and follow me – what will happen? There is only one way of finding out.”

There is no might have been. In St. John’s Gospel, Martha says to Christ, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” right before He raises that brother from the dead. We are called to affirm the gift of reality by living in it. Let’s find out what will happen.

Emily Lehman is a senior studying English. 

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