A friend asked me – seriously asked, not joking around – what I would change if I could live my life again.
I know, it's an old question and the common answer, the quick one, the one that's supposed to reveal wise acceptance of life, is “nothing,” and although I don't recall, I would not be surprised to learn that I have said that in the past.
But I didn't do that this time. I actually thought about it – well, for as long, anyway, as is tolerable on a telephone call - and my answer then was that I would take life more seriously than I have, that I would take pains to learn more, learn it more thoroughly and better apply what I learned.
Writing it down like that makes me sound sappy but I do have, from the vantage point of age 72, a strong sense that I have lived life more frivolously than I would have liked.
After we ended the call, the question stuck with me and I wondered how other people – perhaps some more thoughtful than I – have answered.
Talullah Bankhead was her expected pithy self: “If I had to live my life again, I'd make the same mistakes, only sooner,” she said.
I suspect people should read the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's harrowing take on the question early in life so not to be crushed by it later.
“What if a demon were to creep after you one night, in your loneliest loneliness, and say, 'This life which you live must be lived by you once again and innumerable times more; and every pain and joy and thought and sigh must come again to you, all in the same sequence. The eternal hourglass will again and again be turned and you with it, dust of the dust!'
“Would you throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse that demon? Or would you answer, 'Never have I heard anything more divine'?”
Then I came across this poem variously attributed to the Argentine poet and essayist, Jorge Luis Borges and to the Columbian journalist and short story writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
If you believe Wikipedia – and I do, in this case – it was neither man. The first known version of the poem – titled Moments - was published as prose in 1953 in Reader's Digest titled, I'd Pick More Daisies.
The poem exists in Spanish as Instantes, in English as both Moments and Instants.
Whatever. It is well known, has been published and quoted in many places and distributed widely via internet email. See what you think.
If I could live again my life,
In the next – I’ll try,
- to make more mistakes,
I won’t try to be so perfect,
I’ll be more relaxed,
I’ll be more full – than I am now,
In fact, I’ll take fewer things seriously,
I’ll be less hygienic,
I’ll take more risks,
I’ll take more trips,
I’ll watch more sunsets,
I’ll climb more mountains,
I’ll swim more rivers,
I’ll go to more places – I’ve never been,
I’ll eat more ice creams and fewer lima beans,
I’ll have more real problems – and fewer imaginary ones,
I was one of those people who live
prudent and prolific lives -
each minute of his life,
Of course that I had moments of joy – but,
if I could go back I’ll try to have only good moments,
If you don’t know – that’s what life is made of,
Don’t lose the now!
I was one of those who never goes anywhere
without a thermometer,
without a hot-water bottle,
and without an umbrella and without a parachute,
If I could live again – I will travel light,
If I could live again – I’ll try to work bare feet
at the beginning of spring till the end of autumn,
I’ll ride more carts,
I’ll watch more sunrises and play with more children,
If I have the life to live – but now I am 85,
- and I know that I am dying …”
Finally, I found British-American journalist Christopher Hitchens who gave the question the sort of gravity I was looking for. This is from his book, Hitch-22: A Memoir - the one he wrote while he knew he was dying. Beware, it is the final sentence, below, that stabs at the heart.
“If you were offered the chance to live your own life again, would you seize the opportunity?
“The only real philosophical answer is automatically self-contradictory: 'Only if I did not know that I was doing so.' To go through the entire experience once more would be banal and Sisyphean - even if it did build muscle - whereas to wish to be young again and to have the benefit of one's learned and acquired existence is not at all to wish for a repeat performance, or a Groundhog Day.
“And the mind ought to, but cannot, set some limits to wish-thinking. All right, same me but with more money, an even sturdier penis, slightly different parents, a briefer latency period - the thing is absurd.
“I seriously would like to know what it was to be a woman, but like blind Tiresias would also want the option of re-metamorphosing if I wished. How terrible it is that we have so many more desires than opportunities.”
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jackie Harrison: Memories of My Son