The Garden of Forking Paths

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It’s snowing here in Dallas today. Kind of. It’s more icy rain than it is snow but the city shut down nonetheless. Thus I am at home, sitting in my favorite chair drinking my fourth cup of coffee and waiting for the warmth from this MacBook to bleed through the three blankets I’m covered in and help keep my legs from freezing. I lit a few candles and opened all the blinds in my living room and turned on the album Train by Niklas Aman, which is maybe my favorite album in the world right now. I slept until 9, had egg whites and avocado for breakfast and finished the load of laundry that I started last night before I went to bed. It is a still and wonderful morning.

I’ve never been good with decisions. When I first read “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges I cried. If you haven’t read it, you should. It is beautifully written and so excellently constructed that it makes me certain I will never write anything of value but I don’t care. It’s worth the self-deprecation.

The story is about time and possibilities. It describes a world in which our decisions don’t inherently eliminate the possibility of its alternatives, but rather that multiple futures and possibilities can exist in parallel. “This web of time – the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries – embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not.” (57)

I cried because of course it could never be so. We make choices at the expense of others. And, at least in my life, there’s not always much certainty or much to be proud of in those chosen. So there’s a lot of fear and regret tied up and twisted around that web of time that Borges mentions. “We are doomed to choose and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.” – Isaiah Berlin. It’s terrifying. I’ve never been good with decisions.

But this morning I’m sitting here in my living room, surrounded by furniture I’ve pieced together over the past two years and picture frames filled with people and moments that were worth a frozen memory and the web of time seems both wonderful and still. I’ve made a lot of poor choices. I walked down a lot of roads I might’ve sworn to never walk down. I’ve hurt people and hurt myself and fractured relationships that I wish I hadn’t fractured. I’ve been a person that I don’t want to be, often. And all of those things led to moments and circumstances and situations that changed me and the trajectory of my life in both tiny and tremendous ways.

In my worst moments I have a lot of trouble being okay with the person that I am. I want to be more outgoing, more comfortable in social situations, better with small talk or remembering people’s names. I want to be optimistic, to be bubbly and warm and inviting. I want to be less obsessed with being in control, less of a perfectionist, less uptight all the time.   And so I want to go back. To find 16-year old me and 22-year old me and shake her and say, “don’t do that.” Don’t date him. Don’t say that. Don’t forget these things. Because maybe then I wouldn’t be this way, have these scars, have these certain memories that make my stomach drop out of anguish and regret. Every choice may entail an irreparable loss.

I think this way a lot, letting blame and disappointment and shame tell me stories of the girl that surely I’d be if I hadn’t done and said and chosen the things I did and said and chose. It’s a toxic way of thinking. For invariably I find myself mourning the death of her. Hearing the post-mortem report of the kinder, more forgiving, certainly more loved version of myself that I killed along the way. Survived only by this lesser version of me, who regrets the choices she’s already made and (accordingly) fears the ones to come.

It’s a scary place to find yourself – at the grave of someone who never existed, buried in the garden of forking paths – namely because it isn’t real.

But today, here under these blankets, the snow outside has covered that grave just long enough to remind me of what is true. The candle that’s burning was given to me by a friend who knows these fears and regrets and loves me anyway. There’s a children’s book on my end table that a different friend gave me for my birthday titled “Sometimes I Like to Curl up in a Ball” because she cares for me well, especially when I do need to curl up in a ball. And soon I will be joined by yet another friend who has seen me throw ridiculous, irrational fits that are absurd and hurtful, and still wants to spend his afternoon reading a book on my couch.

And all of this, the gift of friendship and the humility of being truly known, the frost on the window sill and the comfort of leggings and slippers, the reminder of my desperate need for grace and mercy, is evidence that this version of me, every poor choice included, is still seen and loved by the God of the universe. And that he is a God who is sovereign over all things, who redeems all things, and who works all things together for good.   Who says, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and streams in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

What sweet humility there is in realizing that the Lord’s sovereignty goes behind, before and so far beyond the choices I make. What great freedom in knowing that I cannot thwart his will. And what stunning grace that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8) and reconciled us to the one who orchestrates the chaos and leads us in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:24).

I thought of a maze of mazes, of a sinuous, ever growing maze which would take in both past and future and would somehow involve the stars.” (19)   Do you not perceive it?

One thought on “The Garden of Forking Paths

  1. I often think along similar lines.

    The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. – Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

    Poor choices show our humanity and inevitably cause suffering, but the ability to bend and not break or to break and press on create the person we are. Keep pressin’ on.

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