For the first few days of every January, I greet my friends and acquaintances with a hearty “Happy New Year!” Most of us do. But what are we saying? You and I have a general idea of what a “happy year” might look like, but under closer examination, it’s a very personal, even spiritual, bidding we’re offering.
Opening a new calendar is clearly an event that invites our reflection and our hope. We remember the past 12 months and ponder what’s ahead in the next 12. As we reflect on the past, we may be led to dig more deeply than just sighing over covid and politics.
We also turn to pondering our own lives – who we are now, what our routines are, the choices that have brought us to this point, the directions we might have taken and didn’t, perhaps even the actions we’d like to undo and cannot.
A hard truth is this: By a certain age, when we’re actually fairly young, our choices stop being limitless. We can’t be “anything we want to be.” Our possibilities shrivel because we have made certain decisions – piano instead of soccer, chemistry instead of history, drawing instead of ballet.
Remember that the root word “decide” means “to cut away,” even to the point where one option dies. (Think homicide, suicide, genocide.) As we decide for this and not that, some possibilities before us wither and actually die. Experiences we chose not to pursue can’t be re-experienced.
We likewise hope and dream for a “happy” future, but our hopes are always forced to live in a room whose walls slowly close in on us, year after year. Choices continue to shrink. There is always at least one door, one choice, in every wall, but many doors no longer exist because years ago we chose other ones.
As we age, becoming “anything we want to be” is increasingly absurd. We dream about unlived lives, possibilities that never came to be.
Enter the wisdom of The Midnight Library. Matthew Haig’s best-selling novel tells of an unhappy young woman Nora, who at the point of death is offered recurring opportunities to make different choices. She’s placed in some unearthly “library” filled with books that recount her other lives, ones she might have chosen to pursue at different junctures. She is allowed to revisit past moments in her life, make different choices, and experience those possible other lives.
The novel fleshes out the details of what she thinks each “happy new year” might contain. At the end of her story, Nora writes “A Thing I Have Learned (Written by a Nobody Who Has Been Everybody).” In it she concludes:
It is easy to mourn the lives we aren’t living. Easy to wish we’d developed other talents, said yes to different offers. Easy to wish we’d worked harder, loved better, handled our finances more astutely, been more popular ….
It is easy to regret, and keep regretting, ad infinitum, until our time runs out. … We can’t tell if any of those other versions would have been better or worse. Those lives are happening, it is true, but you are happening as well, and that is the happening we have to focus on.
Love and laughter and fear and pain are universal currencies. We just have to close our eyes and savor the taste of the drink in front of us and listen to the song as it plays. We are as completely and utterly alive as we are in any other life and have access to the same emotional spectrum. We only need to be one person.
In other words, you and I only get one time around. But that’s enough to experience the deep emotions that constitute real life and make us human: love and laughter, pain and sadness, joy and hope..
In every moment, at every age, we’re always blessed with a choice, some choice: It could be a new project or adventure. It might simply be to live with more kindness and less irritation, more gratitude and less regret, more trust and less fear, more laughter, perhaps, more love.
The Midnight Library reminded me of the poet Mary Oliver’s haunting question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
You have only this one wild and precious life. The future is wide open, this is the room, there are the doors. We can choose wisely.
Happy New Year!