What If: why this question wastes our time

Jeff Greenfield has written a new book of alternate history, entitled Then Everything Changed, asking the question What if?  If this trivial thing hadn’t happened, what would’ve been different in history?

 Here’s an example. In late 1960, would-be suicide bomber Richard Pavlick went to then-President-elect John F. Kennedy’s home, intending to kill him. He sat in his car, finger on a switch connected to seven sticks of dynamite, ready for JFK to come out the door. But Jackie Kennedy was at the door, seeing her husband off to church. Unwilling to set off a bomb in front of his wife, Pavlick didn’t do anything. But what if, Greenfield asked, what if Jackie Kennedy had slept late and JFK had left for church alone? How would American history have changed if JFK had never become president?

He spent fifteen years thinking about the past and asking what if?

Most of us spend our lives doing this.

There have been times when I’ve been caught up in the “what if” questions about my own history.  What if . . .

  • I had transferred to the public high school like I wanted to?
  • I hadn’t dated that guy and had dated that one?
  • my crush had asked me out?
  • I had asked him out?
  • I’d never met my husband?

 I have novel characters that do this, too. What if she’d told her parents about being raped? What if he hadn’t let anger destroy his marriage? What if she had had an abortion? What if she hadn’t trusted an untrustworthy person?

Some of the questions lead to unsettling conclusions, the kind that George Bailey finds in It’s a Wonderful Life when he wishes he’d never been born: his wife remained a spinster, his children were never born, crime infested his town, all the good guys turned bad, misery prevailed.

Some of the questions lead to regret, the sort that keeps me awake at night because I know I made a mistake, I regret it, and I can’t change it. Others lead to pain because someone else wronged me or a tragedy occurred or a senseless act of God destroyed my hopes. I can’t change those, either.

And because I want to change the answers and can’t, I create this alternate history in my fantasies, a world where my life is perfect because my choices and other people’s choices were perfect and God acted according to my perfect plans and the way I think a perfect God ought to act.

It’s a waste of time. The seconds become minutes, become hours, become days, weeks, months, years. Before I know it, my entire life is wasted allowing my past to taint my future.

Granted, I need to acknowledge and learn from my poor choices. People who never consider the past are condemned to repeat it. Likewise, we need to mourn after a tragedy and to ask the hard questions of God. Otherwise we might shut down emotionally or our faith might be stunted and shallow. 

But if all we ever do is look back, then we become obsessed with the past. Regret or bitterness or doubt consume our lives. We’re like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, wearing the yellowed bridal gown and staring at a cobwebbed cake from the wedding-that-never-happened, completely absorbed with her delusions. It’s as though she’s asked “what if” so often that she lives in the alternate history she’s created.    

 At some point, we have to make a choice to shed our Miss Havisham-personas, throw away the inedible cake, discard the torn wedding dress, and look reality in the face. Admit the mistake and learn from it. Acknowledge and mourn the tragedy that altered your life. Take a deep breath, throw out the alternate history books, and face life as it is. It won’t be perfect, but it will be real.

Only then can we face the future with hope and courage.  

How about you? Do you spend a lot of time asking “what if”?


5 thoughts on “What If: why this question wastes our time

  1. Great post. Any time I’m tempted to do this, I remind myself that the answer is, “I don’t know.” There are a lot of good things in my life, and there’s no way of telling which “what if” would have resulted with me being in a different job, or being further from my family, or missing out on a cool opportunity, or being in a different relationship, or what have you. I’m really pretty blessed. I don’t know for sure that there couldn’t have been a better path out there, but I know for sure there could have been a lot of worse ones, if they meant missing out on things my journey has included. So since there’s no way of knowing where other roads could have gone, I’ll just be glad I took the one I did.


    1. Great point about “I don’t know” being the answer to the “what if” question. I’ve been blessed, too. It’s just that my imagination runs away like crazy! So, being a creative writer, I’ve tried to turn the “what if” scenarios into stories. My first novel started with my fear of “what if” something bad happens after my baby is born; it really ate at me and I couldn’t get rid of the question. So I projected the worst case scenario answer onto fictional people, who of course became characters in the novel. It was a nice way of dealing with the problem, since it took the focus off me and gave me a creative outlet for my worries.


  2. I too often ask “what if” questions in current situations rather than past ones. I am able to create and/or imagine a scenario that ends up with the exact thing I don’t want. I keep using the “what if” questions to prove to myself that the worst can, indeed, happen.

    I have of course played the “what if” game looking at the past too but never really got too hung up on it because I realized that there are so many factors in determining outcome. I once looked at an old flame’s life and there were so many similarities that I marveled at how so many things in life might have been the same if I’d ended up with him instead. But that’s a stupid way to think because it neglects the influence that I, as an individual, would have had. That’s what he did and those are decisions he made with someone else. If I had been in his life maybe he would have made decisions differently. The movies Sliding Doors and Butterfly Effect demonstrate these ideas well.

    Great post. Thought-provoking. Thanks. I wanna read that book now too. Do you recommend it?


    1. *Cough, cough* I haven’t actually read the book. I saw an interview with Greenfield on the Today show and read an article about it. So I have no idea how good it is! I may have to read it, huh?

      I like this thought of yours: it neglects the influence that I, as an individual, would have had. I couldn’t help but remember a situation with my late grandmother. Back during WWII, she was engaged to be married to a particular man; he died when his ship was hit by a hurricane, and she ended up married to my grandfather. My mom has sometimes bemoaned the fact that she looks like her father, and if “Mama had just married Evert, I might’ve been tall and had blonde hair!” But she’s forgetting that she wouldn’t be her (and I wouldn’t be myself if my mom had had Evert as her father). She realizes this, of course, but still, the appeal of blonde hair persists. (Hair dye, Mom, hair dye.)

      And of course the influence would’ve gone far beyond genes into the things that you’ve mentioned: the decisions an individual makes, etc. Thanks for commenting!


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