To Know What Could Have Been
“But what would have been the good?”
Aslan said nothing.
“You mean,” said Lucy rather faintly, “that it would have turned out all right – somehow? But how? Please, Aslan! Am I not to know?”
“To know what would have happened, child?” said Aslan. “No. Nobody is ever told that.”
“Oh dear,” said Lucy.
“But anyone can find out what will happen,” said Aslan. “If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must all get up at once and follow me – what will happen? There is only one way of finding out.”
~ C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian1
When my mother read the Chronicles of Narnia series out loud to me and some of my siblings back when I was a wee little fellow, this line stood out among all of the other most excellent lines contained within Lewis’s work. Something about the idea that we can never know what might have been stuck me as a young child, and every now and then my thoughts will drift back to the wisdom and insight contained in this single, short exchange tucked away in the pages of a children’s story.
With a mere twenty years under my belt, I have already made more poor and misguided decisions than I could possibly count. More than once, I have looked back at some of the things I have done and said only to wish that I could go back, change them, and see what could have been had my actions differed. Damaged relationships and forgone opportunities haunt us sometimes, and no matter how careful and diligent we are in our thoughts and behavior, when life inevitably throws up a wall in our face, the temptation to take up the age-old “If only…” and “What if…?” mantras is strong.
However, as Aslan tells Lucy in Prince Caspian, no one is ever told what would have happened had some different choice been made. Our lives are not choose your own adventure books where we can follow every available alternative to a distinct ending, nor do we have access to DeLorean at our disposal or a “Restart from Last Save” option. Going back to fix our mistakes is no more an option than glancing into an alternative reality is.
As sinful human beings, we have a hard enough time simply being grateful for the things we have and with learning how to live the lives God has given us. The daily routine, the responsibilities we all have to juggle, and the brokenness of the world as a whole make daydreaming about a world without sin or a world where we always made the right decisions tempting enough as it is. Even when we’re at our best, vocation is a tough pill to swallow, but when our thoughts are drawn towards the unattainable and nonexistent worlds where we never made a mistake and where everything went our way, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to shoulder the duties that have been laid upon us.
Becoming caught up in what could have been had some other avenue been taken may seem appealing and even enthralling. In the long run however, I fear falling into such a habit is destructive and detrimental to both the quality of our lives and our ability to care for those around us. Not only is a fixation on the past and the paths we didn’t take a distraction from where we are today, it has the potential to transform from an idealistic daydream into a covetous and blame-shifting pastime. When we look at an invention and kick ourselves with the typical “Why didn’t I think of that?” or when we internally grumble as another person attains success with a “If so and so hadn’t done such and such that would be me,” we are really coveting after what others have done. Often, at least in my personal experience, this turns into a way for us to justify our own personal sloppiness of a slothful approach to life.
“Well, things aren’t going my way today because someone else messed things up for me in the past. If they hadn’t gotten involved, or if someone else had realized my potential, I wouldn’t be here today!”
Alternatively, if we recognize that the responsibility for the mistakes of our past fall squarely on our shoulders, we may allow them to lead us into depression today. When we are keenly aware of our own sinful and broken self, it isn’t too hard to look around at our current station in life and consider all of the ways that our failures in the past made things harder for us and those we love.
“If only I hadn’t made that decision, I would have prevented so much suffering!”
It is certainly true that we can learn from our past mistakes, and looking at alternatives to our past decisions by examining where they landed us today is not a bad way to prepare for moving forward in life. However, the limited life experience I have acquired thus far suggests that the temptation to fall into a depressed or resentful mindset is more captivating than the opportunity to build positively on our past experiences.
Thankfully, Aslan doesn’t leave Lucy only with a rebuke, and God doesn’t leave us only with the Law.
Nobody is told what could have happened, but anyone can discover what is yet to come. The choices you have made in the past, regardless of whether or not that were wise or foolish, are done and in the past. Today, we deal with their consequences, and tomorrow we will deal with the consequences of your decisions today. As Christians, we know that this fallen world is not all there is to life, and we believe in the hope of the resurrection as well as forgiveness and the grace of our heavenly Father. The sins of our past, through the sacraments and the goodness of our creator, are not damning, and every day we are given the opportunity to repent and receive forgiveness.
To become fixated on the past, on glory days faded into the long forgotten past or what might have been had we behaved differently, is to reject the goodness and beauty of what is yet to come and what still can be. Instead of asking ourselves “What if?” we should instead focus on asking “What now?”
In Luther’s Small Catechism, under the portion dedicated to the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, there is the question “What does [baptism] indicate?” to which Luther responds:
“It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”2
Every day we are given the opportunity to put our broken, faulty, and scarred past to death with our Old Adam in the death of Christ only to rise again as New Man through his resurrection.This means that every day we can in good conscience let go of our past and focus on making the most of our future.
In Prince Caspian, Lucy and her siblings as well as many others suffer the consequences of ignoring Aslan earlier on in the story, but they are given a new chance and with that chance they are given hope. In our lives, we will always have to live with the consequences, not only of our own errors, but with the consequences of Adam, Eve, and all humankind, but each and every one of us is also given the hope of an eternal life unmarked or blemished by our faults and failings.
As this year draws to a close, I encourage you not to look back with an “if only,” but to look forward with a “what now?”
Rejoice, give thanks, and be at peace for the sins of your past have been clothed in the righteousness of He who became man, lived, and died for you. Your past may be broken, but your future has been secured with the very precious Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior.
1 Lewis, C. S. Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (New York: Harper Collins, 1994) , 149
2 Luther, Martin Lutheran Service Book: Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 325
Photo courtesy of subarunio.