Susan Cox: Finding the good in life’s ‘what ifs’

Years ago, in my high school US history class, we wrote a “what if” paper. We each picked an event and made educated guesses based on our research about what might have happened had that event occurred or not occurred.

I wrote about what Robert F. Kennedy could have accomplished had he not been assassinated. Other students discussed different people becoming president, laws that were enacted, or battles in various wars. By examining these events and their counterfactuals, we discovered a mix of impacts, both “good” and “bad.”

While most of us will not have our lives studied by historians (or even history students), looking back and asking “what if” about events in our lives can help us see the new opportunities that can come from challenging, disappointing, or negative situations. For instance, I’ve often thought about how my life might have been different if I hadn’t gotten divorced.

At first glance, divorce seems like a pretty negative event. I had been a stay-at-home mom for many years, so I ended up going back to school to reinstate my teaching license. Fitting in classes, homework, and a part-time job while taking care of my kids, my house, and my yard was frequently overwhelming. Free time all but disappeared, and plans to replace our old carpet were scrapped. Additionally, instead of just taking the few classes I needed for my license, I opted to get my master’s degree, which made it harder for me to get a job in the public schools.

These negatives did bring some benefits though. Having less time and less money forced me to examine my priorities and find creative ways to fit in activities for my kids and myself. Getting an advanced degree allowed me to teach at the college level, giving me a more flexible schedule so I could be home with my kids. I’ve also met many colleagues and students who have expanded my views and helped me develop more empathy. Additionally, going back to school and teaching have pushed me to continue learning about new topics and issues as well as refreshing my writing abilities. I probably would not be writing this column if I had not been divorced. I was content to stay home and might not have answered the call for new columnists.

Another emotional and logistical challenge of divorce was scheduling time with my kids. After we separated, my ex-husband moved across the country, which meant that the kids spent most of the summer and school vacations with their dad and that I was solely responsible for our children the rest of the time. Being alone during those long vacations was hard, and I missed my children. However, I learned to enjoy alone time, and now when my husband travels for work, I know how to be content by myself. Additionally, prior to the divorce, I was hesitant to leave my kids for more than one night out and I had turned down my parents’ offer to visit them in Peru. Without the mandated separation from my kids, I’m sure I would not have gone to Peru.

While my divorce is the biggest event I ask “what if” about, I also wonder how life might be different if I had chosen another career (especially when I have a giant stack of papers to grade). Teaching isn’t a high paying job, so I would probably be earning more money and not have to bring work home. However, being able to have the laundry going while grading or planning lessons can be nice, but at the same time, the laundry can distract me from taking care of those school tasks. The impacts of these different possibilities in both cases are a mix of good and bad. I prefer to focus on the positive impacts, and as you consider your own “what ifs,” I encourage you to do the same.

Susan Cox is one of The Republic’s community columnists, and all opinions expressed are those of the writer. She is an avid reader, an outdoor enthusiast, a mother, a grandmother, and an adjunct instructor of English at IUPUC. She can be reached at [email protected]