For all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
John Greenleaf Whittier wrote those words in 1856 in his poem “Maud Muller.” Many people understand the regret and sorrow that unfulfilled dreams of youth can engender. A corollary that I hear expressed is “I should have been born when…” Fill in the blank as suits – before this, after that, when men were men, and so on. A corollary of that corollary (would that be a corollarylary?) is, “I should have been born someone else.” I’ve been known to use that one.
What’s at the core of all this regret? Why aren’t we happy with our station in life? In my case, I feel like I was dropped off at the wrong station, and the train disappeared down the tracks with a belch and a billow of smoke. I may look at this station and not like it, but am I being fair? Is it really such a bad little station? Am I focusing on the negative? I mean, just scrape off that peeling paint, add a fresh coat, sweep the dusty wooden floor, or tear it up and replace it with marble, and add a skylight or two and a Starbucks and a couple of valets and an ATM, and…
Well, maybe I’m spiraling down the metaphor hole, but I think you see the point. Some of us may have a tendency to take the good things in our lives for granted. Nevertheless, I find myself pondering (and those who know me know I love to ponder) what life in a different time period might have been like. Would we have flourished in a different epoch?
Ah, the Wild West, the Age of Chivalry, the Renaissance – all magic times, except for an appalling lack of indoor facilities. That sounds kind of unpleasant.
Or I could be a bit more modern. Say, the Roaring 20’s, or the film noir 40’s, or the jazz and beatnik 50’s. And the more I think about it, I’d definitely pick an era without cell phones, and the internet. Not that I don’t like them. I just think they’re signaling the demise of civilization. They also have made it devilishly hard for me to make a youthful dream come true. All the magazines I had envisioned dominating with my fascinating meanderings are either defunct or hobbling in that direction. (I’m sure a meager measure of talent on my part has nothing to do with it.)
We all feel the need to be wanted and appreciated. Most of us have that fulfilled, in some measure, by family or friends. To feel embraced and loved by the world is another matter. It’s human nature to want life to pat us on the head and clear the pathway ahead and give us a wonderful life. I can say, then, that I should have been born when the world wanted me. I should have been born at the precise moment when there was a Joe-shaped hole in the world, and I would have filled it in.
Of course, it would be lovely if that template resulted in there being one more earl or duke in the world. Or at least a baron. No, an earl would be perfect. Then I could have bought one of those magazines, lock, stock, and barrel, and have it print whatever poppycock sprouted out of my head. I’m sure my poppycock is just as good as other poppycock I’ve encountered; maybe it’s even poppier. Yes, I could be the Earl of Poppycock, and the Poppycock Gazette would rule the literary world.
I’m glad we went through this little exercise. Now, whenever people at a party or high-brow gathering are discussing when they should have been born, I can confidently say that I should have been born about a century ago as the Earl of Poppycock.
How about you?