Those Rare Circumstances

No matter how hard a person works or how much effort he puts forth in setting the course for his life, circumstances over which he has no control direct the course of his time on Earth in many ways.

It begins early, with his “choice” of parents or siblings. Whether by birth or by luck of the draw, our early lives are molded by both genetics and the environment in which we develop. It continues with school and his teachers—people over whose selection he has virtually no input. Even the curriculum his education follows generally is not within his, or even his parents’ control; the State or the Church or some other controlling entity makes the choice for him. In connection with that prescribed indoctrination, vast periods of his society’s history may be erased or reimagined. He learns what he is told to learn; he is taught what people who manage his environment decide he should be taught.

All during his maturation, decisions over which he has little or no influence set the direction of his life. And, then, simple chance enters the process. Which students or neighbors become his friends or acquaintances or lifelong enemies. Which girls he dates or, depending on factors within and outside his control, which dates he foregoes because his social development lags behind his peers. And later still, more semi-random circumstances chip away at his options by steering him in directions he may or may not embrace: Higher education. Jobs offered. Jobs refused. Jobs accepted. Marriage or bachelorhood. Participation in social activities or decisions to refrain from them.

A million situations, circumstances, decisions made or foregone, marriages begun or ended…and on and on and on. Though he may make many decisions along the way, he has no way of knowing which ones will be impactful and which will lead to others that could alter the course of his lifetime. He is buffeted by howling winds of change, sometimes thinking he has control when, in fact, his decisions are more like desperate efforts to take charge of a runaway train. That train’s speed and direction can be influenced only so very modestly. He has no say over whether the train runs on steam or electricity or diesel; those crucial decisions were not his to make.

The regret of my life is that I have not said ‘I love you’ often enough.

~ Yoko Ono ~

Our lives would be so radically different if only we had made different choices when presented with those limited opportunities to control our destiny. A different job, a different spouse, a different lover, a different location in which to set down root. We control our own outcomes only to the extent that we influence our own randomness in random ways. If I had never picked up a cigarette, I might never have had lung cancer, which would have altered my life in measurable ways. If I had accepted the job offer with the Department of Agriculture, virtually every aspect of my life very likely would have been different from what has transpired so far. I suspect I would have a different take on religion and a different perspective on laws and regulations affecting agriculture. I would have had a different spouse; I would have lived in different places; I might have had a reliable pension as opposed to relying on my own discipline, or lack thereof, to fund my retirement. A million differences. Enormous differences. Incomprehensible differences. And each difference would have been subject to other differences that might have altered the directions my life might have taken.

Regret is among the most painful emotions. It burrows into one’s psyche in ways that make removing it virtually impossible. It is there to stay. It festers and morphs into bitter anguish; self-directed and well-deserved blame.


I am not in the proper mood to introduce a speaker at church this morning, but I’ve committed to doing it. And then to facilitate a conversation after the speaker’s presentation. What in the hell was I thinking when I agreed to do these things? I’m not suited to such stuff, especially when I’ve been thinking about the messes I’ve tended to make in my life. It’s these thoughts that propel me to a fantasy in which I suddenly and without any notice or fanfare simply disappear. Just get in my car and go someplace no no would ever think to look for me. A fishing village on the coast of Georgia, perhaps, or a desolate few acres in Wyoming. But they can always track you with your money; so, I’d have to forego my Social Security and my credit cards and simply live off of what’s left of a lifetime of saving too little that cannot be traced. But maybe running away is not the best solution. Maybe just wandering off into an impoverished neighborhood where everyone has been forgotten; no one leaves such places because they provide such absolute anonymity.


I watched a few episodes of Stateless last night. The one-season series is both riveting and ruinous. Filmed in South Australia, it is bleak and parched and painful. I guess that’s what I was in the mood for. Something that would tear at me and shred my emotions into dry ribbons of pain and regret. Regret. There is it again. It’s so damn common that life doesn’t seem the same when it’s absent.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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One Response to Those Rare Circumstances

  1. davidlegan says:

    “A man becomes ‘old’ when his dreams turn to regrets.” John Barrymore

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