Might-have-beens and moving on with life

It was a split second misjudgement, and it almost cost me dearly. I was preparing to head off to the dentist on my bicycle. My dog O-cha generally sits patiently in the garage close to the back door, and watches as I walk my bicycle out the door and close the garage. This time he was sitting, but between me and garage door. I opened the garage door, and he slipped out into the great outdoors. It so happened that an Uber Eats delivery man was riding by on his moped, and O-cha just started running after him, barking at this strange phenomenon to the exclusion of anything else. The guy on the moped rode down our little lane, turned onto Briar Road, and prepared to merge onto Payneham Road, with O-cha following him all the while. I yelled at him to come back, but he only ran away faster. I really thought I was going to lose him forever.

At this point, circumstances began to turn in my favour. The Uber Eats guy pulled over to the side of the road and sat patiently as O-cha danced around his moped barking at him. Cars began to line up behind him. O-cha ran across the road to a little family sitting outside their house. They thought he was adorable, and when he ran up to say hello, I was able to scoop him up in my arms. He was safe again. Being a dog, he very quickly forgot that it had ever happened. As for me, I sat in the dentist’s chair having a filling drilled out and replaced with my heart pounding in my chest for the whole appointment. In my work as a chaplain and rabbi, I’ve seen all kinds of traumatic situations, but I honestly don’t remember being as distressed as I was for that three minute stretch yesterday afternoon.

With just a little bit of distance between me and the event, I began to reflect on how many things had gone right even as things were going wrong. The Uber Eats guy could well have not liked dogs or not cared and might have just driven off. The family across the street might have been scared of dogs, and having a strange dog approach them might have frightened them, which in turn would have frightened my dog, and he might have run into the road. The other cars might have tried to drive around and hit the dog. So many possibilities for things to end up otherwise, and all of them might well have resulted in a dead or gravely injured dog.

I was reminded of Aviva Zornberg’s brilliant commentary on the story of the Binding of Isaac. The rabbis traditionally attribute Sarah’s death to this event, even though Isaac is not slain. According to one midrash quoted by the medieval commentator Rashi, Satan tells Sarah that the boy is alive but quotes Isaac as saying, “If it had not been that God told him, ‘Don’t stretch out your hand against the boy,’ I should already have been slaughtered.” Zornberg writes, “When Rashi says, therefore, that Sarah dies of the news that her son was all but killed, he is very precisely indicating the full paradox of the midrashic narrative. She dies not simply because she cannot endure to the end of the story…She dies of the truth of that hair’s breadth that separates death from life.” Zornberg quotes the 17th century philosopher known as the Maharal: “This is the human reaction of panic, on realizing that only a small thing separated one from such a fate.”

So many of the most intense, the most crucial moments in our lives are spent in this liminal space between what is and what might have been. I think I spent much of the first few years of my children’s lives there–seeing them come through one mishap after another and worrying about how it might have turned out otherwise. There is the danger of falling into the abyss that lies between–that space that might well have killed Sarah–and not celebrating the fact that everything turned out okay. We have too many stories to the contrary to allow ourselves to bask fully in the reality that another bullet has been dodged.

One liability of being human is that the bad news tends to weigh down on us much more heavily than the good. I had a pretty good week this week. The weather was generally gorgeous. I got to see two excellent and very different performances at the Fringe. I’ve been loving rehearsing for the Purim shpiel, attending dance classes, and riding my bicycle. My 89 year-old father is enjoying a holiday in Panama with my sister, and my sons are healthy. But I feel as though everything in the last few days especially is viewed through a very dark lens that recognises the possibility of a father dowsing his kids with petrol and setting them on fire. Can I ever be fully happy in a world where this can happen? What are the chains of “might have beens” that could have derailed this process and allowed those beautiful children to live?

On Monday, I finished a terrific short story by science fiction author Ted Chiang called “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom.” It suggested the possibility of a machine that allows people to connect with their alternate selves on different quantum plains. They are able to explore all of the different angles of what might have been. For some, this brings a sense of relief. For many more, there is a feeling of dis-ease, especially when it seems the other selves have made better choices. This idea that we are defined by every choice that we make, big and small, is a powerful one. We cannot tell, at any moment, whether we have just decided something that will change our lives forever. In a powerful piece making the rounds on Facebook, Toby Francis described a conversation in which he confessed to a friend that he sometimes got angry enough at his girlfriend to smash things. His friend warned him that smashing things meant that one day he would hit his girlfriend. Toby angrily replied that he wasn’t that kind of a man. Then he read up on domestic violence and its patterns and concluded that he actually probably was that kind of man. That conversation changed his life, and a whole string of “might have beens” were halted.

The Serenity Prayer, created by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, may well hold the key to, well, serenity: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Reflecting on these words may well free us from the prison of might-have-beens so that we can live fully in the present and imagine a brighter future. I can tell you what I’ve changed in my personal situation: I’m now keeping the dog inside when I prepare to ride my bicycle so that he’s not tempted to run off again. And I’ve engaged a dog trainer to come around and offer an hour of coaching and suggestions so that we can learn to keep our dog under control. There is so much in my life that is beyond my control, but at least I hope to keep my dog safe and out of trouble. Shabbat shalom.

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