Saturday, November 19, 2011

Challenge 18: Decisions

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#79. Explain why and how you would, if given the opportunity, change a decision you made in the past. (Salisbury State)

3 a.m. thoughts

If I could change a decision I've made in the past, I wouldn't have eaten at the Tavern last night. I woke up about an hour ago, stomach in turmoil. I've now been to the bathroom twice in the last hour. Why do I insist on going there for a Friday dinner and drink? The food usually makes me sick, but I keep on going back. Live and don't learn. Evidence that, like most people, I make a mistake, swear I'll never do it again, and then promptly forget my promise and do it again.

At present, this is the only mistake I've made in my life that I would change. And I've made plenty of mistakes.


When I was 17, I had a part-time job at a jewelry store. It was about two miles from home, and I would usually take a bus or walk to and from work. One night a snowstorm hit just as we were closing the store. One of my co-workers, an older woman, offered to give me a lift. At first I refused -- she lived in the opposite direction -- but the thought of walking in that blowing snow and ice persuaded me to accept. About a block into our journey, a car came speeding out of a side street, and we crashed. My co-worker's car's front end was completely smashed. Worse, the offending vehicle sped off, so we were left with no one to blame, no one to pay for the damage.

I felt pretty guilty about it. If I had not accepted the ride, she would have driven off in the opposite direction and would not have gotten into the accident. The next day at work, my boss took me aside. "Don't feel bad about it," he said. "You're both OK, and the car will be repaired. That's what insurance is for. And anyway, you never know what would have happened if you had not been in that accident. Maybe she would have been driving home in the opposite direction and gotten into a much worse accident. You never know. She might have been killed. So this accident might have saved her life. The point is, you can't go back and change it, so don't worry about it."


The trouble with changing one single decision is that, really, you are probably changing your entire history. I'm trying to think of something stupid I've done, something small and meaningless that weighs heavy on my mind. I remember a test that I failed during freshman year of college. Psychology class. I slept through a part of that test. I remember the guy sitting next to me nudged me a couple of times to wake me up. How stupid. I ended up with a D in that class, almost ruining my college life before it really began. And here's why I slept through that morning test: I worked for the campus radio station, DJing from 2-6 a.m. twice a week. So naturally I was tired. If I could change a decision in my life, maybe I wouldn't go to the radio station that night. I would find a substitute and stay home and study. Pass the test. Do well. Make something of myself.

However, if I had done that, I probably wouldn't have moved up to better time slots at the radio station. The DJs who always showed up, who showed commitment, were the ones who got promoted. If I didn't get noticed as one of the guys who really cared about the station, I probably wouldn't ever have become the program director. Connected to that, I probably wouldn't be inspired to work equally hard at my other part-time job on campus, at the student newspaper. I probably wouldn't have spent equally long hours there. I probably would always put my classes before my hobbies and interests. I probably would never become an editor. Then, after graduation, I probably would never have gotten a job as a journalist. I then wouldn't move to the East Coast, would never work at a Vermont newspaper. And ultimately, I would never have arrived here at this place in my life. Who knows. Maybe a parallel universe exists, where the guy who did well on that psychology test lives. Maybe that guy is better off. Maybe he has a better job, a better life, things I don't have. But that guy isn't me.


Another time while still in college, while I had a steady girlfriend, an opportunity with another girl presented itself. I was torn. The new girl was absolutely gorgeous, and she wasn't interested in a relationship, just in some fun. No strings. A friend -- who was a couple of years older -- offered this advice: "Go for it! You'll eventually break up with your current girlfriend, and then you'll kick yourself about your missed opportunities. In life, you never regret the things you do, you regret the things you don't do." I didn't listen to him. I remained faithful. But eventually my girlfriend and I did break up. And in a way, my friend had been right. When I look back on life, I realize that the things that I haven't done are the ones I regret.

Here's one: One summer, I visited Ecuador. It's an amazing country -- small, but major changes in topography and climate. You can ski high up in the mountains in the morning and lounge around on a tropical beach that night. (Well, with proper transportation.) I decided to see as much as I could, staying in the capital city for a few nights, in a cloud forest for a few, and on a beach for a few more. One thing that many visitors to Ecuador end up doing is going to the Galapagos Islands. It's quite expensive and takes some planning, but the point is, it's Galapagos! I thought about it for a few days and finally decided, no, I'll come back another time. So I didn't go. I was in Ecuador and I didn't visit the Galapagos Islands. Now, it's a few years later, and all I can say is, I regret that decision. Sure, I can still go, there's plenty of time. But just getting to Ecuador is hard. And there are so many other places I want to visit. Maybe that's a decision I would change. Then again, maybe not, because I have no idea where I would have ended up had I gone there. So, I'll just live with the regret.


I guess it comes down to this: It's the middle of the night. I'd rather be sleeping. But maybe it was a good decision to go to the Tavern last night. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't have thought about any of this. So if I could re-do last night and change a decision, I wouldn't.

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