Sunday, May 7, 2017

What if?

I know that I promised to post about graphic novels. That is still to come. After the events of this weekend, however, there were other things I found on my mind with more immediacy. Specifically, due to the school's closure, yesterday marked the last (at least for the foreseeable future) Commencement ceremony at my alma mater and (at least for the next few days) employer, Saint Joseph's College. To say it has been an emotional time for hundreds of students, staff, faculty, and families is to vastly understate the situation and I'm going to avoid heading into too many details. I would inevitably leave someone out or say the wrong thing, and at this point, there's already been too much pain.

One thing, though, that sticks out to me from yesterday is a phrase I heard from a number of people: "What if?" Often this was in regard to the school's situation ("What if [insert solution] had been tried? Would it have turned out differently?"). I also heard it several times from individuals reflecting on paths both taken and rejected in their respective lives. Occasions like commencements have that effect. What if I had done this? What if I had done that instead? What if?

Those questions have been on my mind a great deal lately, and are likely to remain so for some time. Yesterday, due to an award I won, I had the opportunity to introduce the Commencement speaker. Here's a photo of me at the podium (courtesy of the mother of a student):

It was bittersweet because seventeen years ago today (May 7, 2000), I graduated from Saint Joseph's and was able to give the Valedictorian address from that very podium. But what if? I didn't have to go to Saint Joe. I could have gone to the University of Dayton or John Carroll University. Both offered me scholarships, but the draw of staying closer to family was too great. Once at Saint Joseph's I was originally a creative writing major. What if I had stuck with that instead of switching to Philosophy? What about after Saint Joe? When I lived up in Green Bay with my fiance, what if I had pursued that newspaper writing advertisement instead of going to graduate school? Would I still be in Wisconsin? For a time after my Master's I considered going into a different field altogether since my wife had (what seemed like, anyway) a pretty good job in Cincinnati. Would we still be in Ohio? What if I had picked the Arizona State doctoral program instead of Northwestern? What if? What if? What if?

It's a common theme. Studying Buddhist literature, there are several stories from the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia in which the Buddha would read people's past karma and, using his omniscient Buddha perception, tell them what they could or should have done differently. Of course, there's A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge looks back through "Christmas Past" to wonder what might have been, the "Christmas Present" to see the current consequences of his choices, then, the greatest (or worst?) gift of all, the "Christmas Future" of knowing what will happen if he does not alter his destiny.

In the late 1970s to mid-1980s, Marvel comics ran a series called "What If?" (There, I worked some comics in after all.) These books investigated the outcomes of characters making different decisions at momentous moments, or famous battles going another way than they had in the canonical timelines. Some issues were interesting:

Others were just odd:

In many of those comics, the alternate timeline was frequently shown to have tragic or unfortunate consequences. (In the one above, for instance, Cap dies fighting the Red Skull. In the one above that, Susan Storm leaves the group and everybody gets depressed.) The result is that, at least if you were me, by the end you wipe the sweat from your brow and sigh, "Whew! I'm glad they made their original choices. That outcome would have sucked!"

But we never have that comfort in our own lives, do we? Can we ever know for sure if we made the best choices? If only we could look backward to feel secure about past decisions, or ahead to make sure future ones were right. Perhaps we wonder "what if" because we realize (on some level) the sheer quantity of possible outcomes our lives could take. And on that basis, each decision becomes endowed with enormous potential, a multitude of possibilities. This is both terrifying and affirming for me: however lost one might happen to feel when faced with a crossroad, it also means possessing, in that same moment, a staggering power to mold the future. (Here I'm going to sidestep a little philosophical whirlpool called "hard determinism" that would contradict what I'm saying. But, if you feel you must make your head hurt, have a look:

So that's where we are this Commencement weekend, because "What if" is a close relative of "What now?" For those reading this, whether it's "what if" or "what now" that weighs on your mind, think of yourselves as incredibly powerful. We may not know what comes next, but that just makes us giants of potential.

And next time, I promise, we will talk even more about comics.

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