I have a tendency to visualise my life as a flowchart, punctuated by junctions where an action or decision changed its entire course.
Perhaps others do too, but in my case the diamond-shaped decision symbols do not usually represent major events such as whether to go to university or not, but seemingly insignificant snap-decisions which set my life on a whole new trajectory.
Some of those junctions were out of my control. My parents’ decision to move me to a different school, for example. Or their decision to move to a new neighbourhood in the next village along. Some influences were outside the control of any of us: environmental factors, the programming of our DNA, our innate nature. Some junctions stem from the decisions of others.
Still, there are my own decisions and actions. All the major diamond symbols on the flowchart in my head would look to others to be the most insignificant triggers in a person’s life. But to me, if I were to map out my life for others to see, these would all be my “What if?” moments.
What if, on a GCSE Geography field-trip, I had not chosen to respond to a question I had completely misunderstood? The diamond symbol is the question, from which flow three connectors: 1) to understand and respond appropriately; 2) to misunderstand and respond inappropriately; 3) to ignore the question and mind my own business.
Options 1 and 3 would have made that moment just passing conversation, long forgotten in the winds of time. Option 2, though: utterly consequential for all that followed for the remainder of my life at that school. From that point on, I could build a whole new flowchart delineating every single misstep that followed.
Anyone less timid, moments after blurting out their response to that question, would have stood up to say, “Sorry, I completely misunderstood the question!” Instead, I let it roll on unchallenged for the next two years, descending further and further into misery and dejection.
Had I followed the connectors along option 1, perhaps I would have remained at that school after my GCSEs. Perhaps I would have done sensible A-Levels. Perhaps I would have gone straight on to university. Perhaps I would gone on into a graduate job. Perhaps I would be found at the pub on Friday nights, having a laugh at the bar with my city mates, comparing notes on luxury cars and mortgage repayments. Perhaps.
The next one. What if, in the first week at college, I had not chosen to make friends with a particular individual? What if I had not chosen to hang around with that young man then? For sure, he was a great guy, friendly and outgoing, but our personalities were so unalike and our worldview so completely different. This diamond symbol has two connectors. Option 1, to become friends with him. Option 2, to walk away.
With Option 2, I remain forever on the periphery, mostly ignored, with a couple of friends. That is a continuum of where I’d come from, but it has its advantages: I put my head down to study, everyone ignores me, I am basically anonymous, I get three good A-Levels, I apply for university, I get a good job and lead a completely ordinary life like all my siblings.
Option 1, though. We have a bit of a laugh, enjoy some banter. He introduces me to his world. He gives me some really bad advice. I act on his bad advice. I screw up because I am extremely immature. He cements my idiocy by spewing ridiculous sentiments on my behalf. Those sentiments follow me around for two years. I am the butt of everyone’s jokes. I drop out of life, seriously depressed. It sends me off in a completely different direction.
Another one. Just when it looks like I’m finally getting my life back on track, I basically recycle the last decision diamond all over again in my first week of university, only this time choosing an alcoholic as my companion. The ongoing connectors are pretty much the same, the playbook nearly identical. You’d think I might learn from my mistakes. Third time lucky, maybe?
After this, my decisions are more informed. To cut myself off from everyone. To take up the journey of faith. To change direction after university. To study a Masters degree in Scotland. To move back to London. Still, some decisions remain seemingly insignificant, and yet turn out to be extremely consequential.
What if, that warm spring afternoon in West Ealing in 2001, I had not accepted that spontaneous invitation to lunch in Southall? I could easily have said I was busy or had other plans. That was another snap-decision, but this time quite out of character. Where would I be today without the searching conversation we had that day? Who knows? Would I ever have been introduced to my beloved? What kind of life might I have otherwise known, had I turned down that invitation to venture west along the Uxbridge Road for an afternoon on a whim?
Decisions, decisions. To say one thing at work and not another. To take one turning, unplanned. To settle in this town, and thus meet that companion, my understandings carried in this direction and not that. So many seemingly innocuous moments, capable of changing a life for good. Every day, a new decision. Every day, new moments taking us one way or another. Occasionally, a new trajectory can be aborted by interventions of our own — a follow-on statement or an apology — but mostly they fly on, out of our control, changing our lives forever. Decisions, decisions. ♢