This came up over coffee at Zeli: A friend of mine was at a formal event recently. He was sitting with a prominent, accomplished family–dad, mom, and grown daughter. The daughter had gone to exclusive private schools, then on to college and graduate school. She was beautiful too. This friend of mine wondered what his life would be like if he had grown up in this family instead of his own—how much farther would he have gotten in life? Would he have been able to accomplish more had he not been born into his own highly dysfunctional family (so dysfunctional that he spent time in a children’s home when his parents were unable to care for him).
I had a very strong reaction to this line of thinking. “Sounds like a case of shoulda, woulda, coulda,” I said. “We don’t have any control over the family we’re born into. It’s much more important to me to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.” I illustrated this by marching my forefinger and middle finger in a line across the table.
My friend persisted. “Every year on my birthday, it all comes back to me. The hurt, the loss.”
We agreed on the idea that with some things in life, there is a permanent sense of loss. There are losses that are deep and irrevocable. These losses produce scars that may fade but never really go away. Sometimes these scars get re-aggravated. We may even have a propensity to get ourselves into situations that lead to the re-aggravation of these scars. Or we may be aware of our scars and learn how to take care of them and protect them. But they remain.
Still, I think it is fruitless, pointless, and a waste of energy to think about what might have been. Besides, that prominent family may look perfect on the outside, but I’m sure they’ve got their own peccadillos, losses, dramas and tragedies just like everyone else.
Do you think back on what might have been? Ponder how things could have been different (better) for you had you had a different (better) childhood? Or (like me) are you just trying to make do with what you’ve got and maintain some forward momentum, no matter how small the steps might be?
PS The Nutty Jazz show was outstanding. I’ve seen them several times now and they are consistently great. Here’s what my friend Kevin Carr said about them:
This just in – Nutty ROCKED The Sandbox for their final show there Wednesday night 10/21! Play was delayed at first on account of game (final Dodgers/Phils face-off), so the jazz started late, and it being a sports bar, everybody was bummed about LA’s loss. A real tribute to just how great this band is: eight out of eight tables plus the patrons at the bar all stayed for Nutty’s first set…and loved it! These cool cats made everyone forget their sorrows and just enjoy great classic rock meeting great classic jazz in a most NUTTY way!
Nutty will be at the Hip Kitty in Claremont on Saturday, November 21 at 8:00 pm. If you want to carpool from Pasadena, let me know.
13 thoughts on “A Case of the What Ifs”
gosh, beautiful photo.
I tuned my parents out at a very young age, so I take all credit or blame for my life today. Well, maybe I share the blame with certain books and authors — those were my role models.
You’re right about certain wounds, though. They never heal because we’re always picking the scab — partly because, in a perverse way, it feels good.
Of all the super-wealthy families I know, and I only know a handful, not a generation goes by where there’s not at least one suicide.
Some of the most successful, competent and interesting people I know came out of seriously dysfunctional households.
By the same token, some of the most screwed-up people I know came out of “perfect” families where income and educational opportunities far exceeded the norm.
There’s no cookie cutter formula (I know that from my own experience!). I think it’s all about how individuals are able to process their own childhood experiences, get some support along the way, find a way to forgive, and move on through life with a few ounces of amibition and gallons of courage.
That photo is mesmerizing, by the way.
Dwelling on what could have been is pointless and aggravating, in the personal sphere it is a complete waste of energy except for when it is part of process.
In a political sense it is important to remind those born on 3rd that they didn’t hit a homer and to expect the same results from someone who was nailed to the bench is cruel and self serving.
No, life is not fair but I try not to make even more so in the way (imperfectly) I behave towards others.
“Besides, that prominent family may look perfect on the outside, but . . . ”
So true, so true.
Well,…Ditto all de above, y’all.
Damn! You’ve left this dog barkless. You must’ve been looking over my big ears to peek at my notes cuz all my gems are here!
I had a pretty functional family, and I still wonder about this. How different my life might have been if my dad had been able to show love or to express himself. Or if my mom hadn’t been so incredibly passive-aggressive that she was willing to stew in unhappiness forever but rather take steps to move forward…
It really isn’t worth pondering, because what is done is done…and yet, I still do.
Who can resist a joint called hip kitty?
I dunno–for those of us scaling life with a chip on our shoulder and an ice pick clenched between our teeth–we need to pat ourselves on the back for what we have achieved. Your friend has probably traveled farther than the people at the table. We gots but one life—why fill it with what might have been?
PS–Could I have packed one MORE cliche in that comment? Sheesh!
born to a manic-depressive teenage mother; dad left the day after my third birthday; verbally, physically and sexually abused growing up; subjected to my mother’s turnstile dating, men coming in and out of my life; depressed and drunk relatives; i could go on and on. you get the idea.
rather than focusing on “what could have been…”, all of these experiences contributed to making me who i am today, and for that, i am Truly Thankful.
straight A student, been working since i was 16 and put myself through school…got an AA, BA, MA despite my mother saying, “why bother with school? it’s a waste of time and money!” oh the encouragement from that one! found and been with my honey for the last 23 years, vowing not to repeat the mistakes of the woman who came before me.
didn’t drink or do drugs, didn’t become a runaway teenage mother or a statistic, and don’t verbally abuse anyone who doesn’t have it coming.
there’s a difference between Dwelling and Reflecting on one’s past. to dwell is to stew and make excuses and be consumed; to reflect is to grow and learn and realize you’ve got choices, regardless of where you came from or what your circumstances have been.
what’s done IS done, but what’s LEFT TO DO…that’s entirely up to you.
Wow what a wonderful story you have a lot to teach I hope your kids realize how lucky they are.
Sadly I think you may be the wonderful exception that proves the rule. I know most folks born in your situation would not have had your outcome.
In my case marrying way out of my league helped mitigate much of the baggage of my up bringing.
Such an interesting question. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I do sometimes fall into this kind of funk, but I try not to dwell because I do agree that is does absolutely no good, and I do think that adversity can also foster certain gifts, including resilience and compassion.
Jana has a couple of nice websites. And a brunch of talent! I currently feature her on my own site.
Most parents teach their kids some good and some bad. A lot of kids grow up blaming their parents for the bad feelings/habits/problems they’ve got. But at some point we become adults and our problems are no longer our parents’ responsibility. They raised us for 18 or so years. We’ve got the next 60 to straighten ourselves out. Who’s got the better odds?
Yes, things get ingrained. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, my folks screwed up on some major things. But they brought their own dysfunctions into the mix (and they came from an era when seeing a therapist was taboo). And they did some things right. For me to simply give in and say my problems are their fault is to say I’ve failed at being an adult.