Would I do it all again?
In most monasteries, as in most marriages, we celebrate our silver and golden anniversaries of final profession. I remember explaining to a congregation at one of those celebrations that the only difference between the two is that after twenty-five years a person says to herself, “Well, it hasn’t been too bad so far. I might as well go on with it.” And that after fifty years she says, “I’ve thought it over and I’ve decided to stay.” Everybody laughed because everybody there, if the world only knew it, had gone through the same kind of thinking themselves sometime in life. The fact is that someplace along the line we all live life backward. We look back and wonder.
When we’re young, everything is about the future. It’s where we’re going next that counts. In early middle age, the big question in life is whether we are where we’re supposed to be. In later years, the question is: What did we miss, what could we have done other than what we did? Then after years in a marriage or a career or a place, the question is almost inevitable: Why didn’t I do all the other things I could have done?
We start to wonder what would have been, what could have been. We wonder if what we did was really the right thing for us to do, the wrong thing to do, the only thing to do, the good thing to do. We play with different scenarios: Where would I be now if I had married the other one, gone to a different school, taken a different job, moved to a different place?
It’s an interesting game, this slipping in and out of all the other worlds I might have lived in, but didn’t. More than that, though, I think the exercise of trying on one life after another, at least in my mind, may be an important one as well. It may, if we’re honest with ourselves, be the only thing that can possibly save us from wishing our lives away rather than living them to the hilt.
In Buddhist terminology, life is the process of becoming awake to what is really real, to what is good, to the foolishness of calling anything final or permanent or necessary or imperative. “It is what it is,” the Buddha says.
Everything is for now, nothing is forever. Learning to live in the now, seizing it, realizing its value, honoring its presence in our lives makes for fullness of life.
The things that made me what I am, that brought me to the silencing of my ambitions, the quieting of my restlessness, the damping of my desperate attempts to have more and more, would have happened anywhere, true. If not here, somewhere else would have been just the same, demanded just the same from me, freed me from myself—if I would allow it—just the same.
But these things didn’t happen elsewhere. They happened here. After all, it’s not where I am that is in question. It’s about whether or not I have finally come to realize what life is really about—no matter where I am.
—from Welcome to the Wisdom of the World by Joan Chittister (Eerdmans)