The Pleasures & Pains of “Might’ve Been”
Counterfactuals, opportunity costs, FOMO, and other preoccupations in this modern life.
A decade ago, John Cleese partnered with another writer and two veteran comic-book artists to produce a graphic novel based on a hilarious concept: What if Superman had landed not on a farm in fictitious Smallville, Kansas, but instead in Weston-super-Mare, the small seaside village on the English coast of the Bristol Channel? The result was Superman: True Brit, released as part of DC Comics’ Elseworlds label.
In the True Brit retelling, Mr. and Mrs. Kent mishear the Kryptonian name Kal-El as “Colin.” They go on to raise young Colin Kent to behave as a nice English lad should, meaning that his conspicuous powers are really a nuisance and why can’t he fit in like everybody else and stop being so odd, and could he please stop burning his mother with heat vision?
I recall hearing rumors years ago that Cleese was going to produce and direct a film version where Supe lands somewhere in East London and develops a Cockney accent, but the graphic novel so far is all we have. And it does make you think. Did Kal-El become Superman because of his wholesome upbringing in middle America on the Kent farm, or was he destined to be a good guy regardless? One plausible interpretation of the origin story is that his father sent him here to rule us all, precisely because he knew how powerful his son would become on Earth. Did the Kents kill that plan with kindness? And what if Superman had landed in Paris? Jamaica? Moscow?
That last idea has actually been explored before. In the graphic novel Superman: Red Son, also on DC’s Elseworlds imprint, Superman’s ship lands on a Ukrainian collective farm. (God I love Wikipedia: Another Elseworlds title apparently imagines Batman sometime around the turn of the 17th century as “a pirate of the high seas in the employ of the British crown,” and another sees the Dark Knight become a vampire after being bitten by Dracula.)
Would our most foursquare, all-American of superheroes — the icon at the heart of what is arguably our greatest national myth — have become a Stalinist tool, eventually displacing Stalin himself to ascend as the quintessential Soviet strongman, as he does in Red Son? Would his father’s vision of conquering humankind have come to pass with a simple twist of fate? After all, a few hours’ difference in departure time would have affected his landing spot.
Ah, that eternally vexing, ultimately pointless question: What if?
There are plenty other fantasylands to explore beyond comics. (I’ve actually only ever purchased one comic book in my life, in junior high. It was the one where Superman is killed by Doomsday. They brought him back later though. Capitalism is victorious in the end!)
The biggest goldmine of what-ifs is history itself. That’s where counterfactuals can get much more intriguing, and more heartbreaking, and even kind of nerve-racking.
Philip K. Dick — whose work you’re familiar with even if you’ve never read a single word of his, because Hollywood habitually mines his gloriously imaginative material — explored a fascinating counterfactual of modern history for one of his finest novels, The Man in the High Castle: What if the Axis Powers had won World War II?
In this story, we find ourselves about two decades into a world in which the Allies and the Soviet Union each fell. North America has been split, with Japan controlling its western side and the bulk of the Asia Pacific region, and Germany dominating its eastern portion, plus all of Europe, the former Soviet territories, and Africa. Most of the narrative is set in a San Francisco where Americans are decidedly second-class citizens living in a traditional Japanese culture, having at least outwardly adopted the mores of their conquerors, and in many ways inwardly adopting them as well. Nazi Germany, meanwhile, has devoted its considerable resources to furthering its technological development, particularly in nuclear technology and rocket science, and has even colonized the moon and Mars. The two remaining global superpowers of this horrific alternative universe are now locked in a Cold War all their own.
What elevates The Man in the High Castle is a key plot point of singular brilliance. There exists in this unrecognizable world a banned book, surreptitiously passed underground from citizen to citizen even at the risk of death. This novel within the novel depicts a world in which the Allies had somehow scraped by to win the war. Just as Dick’s counterfactual story induces a distinct uneasiness in its real-life readers, his metafictional counterfactual story-within-a-story gives his vanquished American characters hope.
This Russian doll of counterfactuals is a nice example of how once you start down history’s anfractuous path of what-ifs, it’s hard to stop. What if Franz Ferdinand had survived his assassination attempt — could the Great War and its horrible successor both have been avoided? What if Hitler had died when he was gassed in the trenches in World War I? What if one of the home-grown assassination attempts on him had succeeded? What if he had never invaded the Soviet Union, leaving intact the Nazi-Soviet pact and keeping Stalin out of the European theater? What if Germany had been first to develop the atom bomb?
Closer to home, what if Lee Harvey Oswald had been apprehended prior to Kennedy’s assassination? What if Martin Luther King, Jr., had lived to old age? What if Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated? What if Lee’s attempt to invade the North had been successful at Gettysburg? What if Grant, or George Washington, had been killed in battle? What if the British had quelled the Revolution and hanged all the signers of the Declaration for treason? What if they had won the War of 1812? What if our two countries had never split at all, a counterfactual that Jefferson himself entertained in his first draft of the Declaration: “We might have been a free and great people together.”
Counterfactuals don’t all have to be so serious. What if Boston never traded Babe Ruth? What if Tom Hanks (or Nicholas Cage, or Michael J. Fox, or Scott Baio, for that matter) hadn’t turned down the role of Maverick in Top Gun? Or if Sylvester Stallone had played the boxer Butch in Pulp Fiction, as Quentin Tarantino originally considered? Or if John Travolta hadn’t turned down the lead in Forrest Gump? Or if Jack Nicholson had played Michael Corleone (another gem from the link prior, which has a lot of fun ones). What if, when nine-year-old Jimmy Page’s family moved into a new house, the previous tenants hadn’t left behind a guitar?
But now let’s put aside literary fiction, movies, ’70s-era arena rock, and gut-wrenching historical questions along with the comic books. Sometimes counterfactuals can hit a lot closer to home. It is not uncommon for people to expend considerable psychic energy brooding over counterfactuals in their own lives — an issue intertwined with the theory of opportunity cost and with our cultural affliction with FOMO. (Gauge your own Fear-of-Missing-Out level using this highly unofficial online quiz, if you’re curious.)
To be alive is to make choices. There is no escaping our ever-diminishing decision trees. Actually, they present a problem even before they’re whittled down. Because when humans have too many choices, we tend to feel overwhelmed. And it doesn’t follow that we’d welcome our choices’ being limited, even if we recognized intellectually that it would help us out. Besides, any choices we’re so certain we could do without are unlikely to be options on our own personal decision trees in the first place — it’s eliminating the ones we’re unsure of that’s the problem.
Should you take that job? Should you never have taken that other job? Should you switch careers altogether?
Should you have moved to that new city? Should you move to a new one now? Or back to that other one, which was pretty OK — wasn’t it?
Should you purchase a house, or are we on the precipice of another housing bubble?
Buy or sell? Bourbon or scotch? What’s for dinner? What’s on Netflix? Where to next?
Like many ideas from economics, opportunity cost (“the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen”) is relevant to how we live our lives at the micro-level. It’s not just about financial resources: time is a commodity too, and arguably a pricier one at that. Every minute you’re online, you’re not outside and you’re not reading a book and you’re not cramming too many counterfactuals into one blog post. Every minute you’re checking social media, you’re not getting work done and you’re rarely even socializing. Every minute you spend commuting, you’re not working (and you’re not free, either). Whatever you choose from that trendy menu eliminates a couple dozen other choices. (Is this why small-plate places have become so popular? FOMO and choice maximization?) Every social event you attend ensures that you might be missing something cooler elsewhere, which partly explains why L.A. is the flakiest of towns.
Studies show that any talk of opportunity cost and FOMO and counterfactuals and choices has a high probability of leading to Robert Frost’s ubiquitous poem, “The Road Not Taken” (as I have just proved). You know, “Two roads diverged,” etc. But what many people miss is that Frost was being ironic. His speaker didn’t take “the road less traveled” at all. In the second stanza, he says each path had been worn “really about the same.” The misinterpretation stems from the poem’s conclusion, where the speaker imagines his future self looking back on his decision and embellishing it a bit, making it seem more difficult and therefore nobler than it really was at the time. But at the actual moment when he is faced with the decision, he sort of shrugs at it all, as if to say, whatever — “way leads on to way.” (Callback to Jimmy Page! “Yes there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.”)
If that interpretation ruins Frost’s poem for you or leaves you uninspired, try to think of it as a comfort instead. After all, he’s saying that no matter what choice you make, you’ll end up justifying it anyway! As much as our trouble in choosing is part of our nature, nothing trumps our gifts at self-aggrandizement.
There’s no alternative to being responsible for our own choices. It’s just part of being an annoyingly conscious person. With every choice we make, we eliminate millions of others, if you think about it. But why think about it that way? Instead of being overwhelmed by our overgrown decision trees, the better way to live is to deliberately make our choices and continue onward without meekly looking over our shoulders as we go. “I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes,” Carl Sandburg wrote. And whenever we do look back, we should look back with pride at being our own badass decisive selves.
Yeah, it’s something I need to work on too.
Posted on September 26, 2014.