Some claim that Lawn Bowls, with its fearsome incidence of mid-drive ticker trouble, is the most dangerous game in the world. Well … I know a game more dangerous by far!
I spent two nights in Tamworth this week, travelling north on connecting flights to conduct a funeral service for a family I hold dear. As I packed for the journey, my Favourite Wife and I allowed our thoughts to roam around the town we called home for many years; the town where we first met and then married. Our wandering thoughts drifted to a property we briefly considered purchasing almost two decades ago: a small cottage on an intriguingly long block of land that stretched down to a narrow river frontage. What a superb home it would have made for our family of six children! There was an orchard, a work shop, a sheep pen, old sheds, climbing trees, hideouts and a small jetty. We had quickly realised that it was out of our reach; but what if we had bought? What if? Would we still be there today? What would our life look like? We indulged our rose tinted fantasy a little longer and soon enough created alternate futures for several of our children, vastly different career prospects for ourselves, and a suitably surreal lifestyle to match. Wisdom, even garden-grown common sense, should have stopped us in our tracks. Enough of this nonsense! But one wayward thought can follow another, and in the way that all roads lead to Rome our fantasy had only one possible destination, reached with the wistful words, “You might not have got sick”.
That phrase was over-burdened with impossibility and vein hope, and the effect on us was chilling and abrupt. I felt myself recoil with the furtive guilt of a child caught touching something forbidden. This, then, is the most dangerous game in the world: What If….
Growing up as an inveterate day dreamer I found it all too easy to swap the real world for an infinitely less probable alternative. In the briefest moment of distracted dreaming I can still create a detailed parallel world; one in which the trials of today are completely absent, one that is coloured by the most infantile notions, one in which, for example, I am a prosperous professional, (optometry is a favourite disguise), bringing up my family near my childhood home on a pristine Sydney beach. The elaborate scenarios I have concocted and revisited over the years are more than a little embarrassing. I suspect that some are more given to this pursuit than others; and I feel a certain jealousy for those well grounded folk who keep their minds so firmly on the job.
The week gone by was bracketed by two funerals, seven days apart. Two people I knew well, two people who could not have been more different, two funerals with barely anything in common. One woman, one man. One black, one white. One in the east, one west. One in a city, one in the far, far outback. One was a person well educated in European culture and science, the other was a custodian of tribal law. One funeral, the one I attended, was in English; the other in the cadences of Ngaanyatjarra, a language of the Western Desert. As I reflected this week on the extraordinary divergence of these two lives, it seemed to me to underline the notion that the major themes of life are more given than chosen. Both of these people had lived life with much to admire in their choices and skills; and yet the factors that made their lives so distinct from each other were largely beyond their control. As it has often been said, it’s how we play the hand we are dealt that matters most.
Perhaps this is why the game of what if is so very dangerous. It is played in an arena that does not exist; never did and never will. Living in the realm of fantasy saps us of the courage, creativity and humour that are so needed to face reality; and in that depleted state the concrete facts of life will deal savagely with us.
Yet, having said all that, I am very aware that I rarely play the most dangerous game these days. There have been seasons in life when I pursued this sport with obsessive indulgence, but now I am seldom tempted. I wonder again if this isn’t somehow connected to choice, or, more accurately, to its absence. The road ahead has revealed itself to be a narrow one, but I find myself ready to walk it, and to enjoy the views and encounters it affords. I am reminded of mountaineer Lincoln Hal describing his envy of Tibetan peasants who, in the confines of their seemingly limited world, seemed to possess the very contentment in life that he was using his wealth and freedom to search for on the face of Everest.
A man’s steps are directed by the Almighty. How then can anyone understand his own way? (Proverbs 20:24).
There are many things I don’t understand, but those things are safe in His understanding.
PS.. the Aboriginal man who passed away was the husband of Tjingapa, who I wrote about in ‘Being and Doing’.