Look, I’ll admit it: I cheated at Choose Your Own Adventure books.
For the uninitiated, the stories used to be quite popular in the past. Essentially, they were printed books where you were presented with choices at points during the plot. Depending on what you chose, you’d be directed to an outcome on a different page of the book.
Visual novels on the computer are a pretty good modern proxy.
Anyway, when I was a kid, I had a ton of Choose Your Own Adventure books all garnered from yard sales. And when I came to one of those choice points, I would always cheat. I’d put my finger in the place where I made the choice. Oftentimes, very benign and good-seeming choices would result in a quick, grisly death. So in those scenarios, this would make it very easy for me to return to the choice and pick the one that didn’t result in death (or heartbreak, going broke, what have you — an unhappy ending).
But in other scenarios, the paths were both new plots — no ending to be found. So instead, I’d come to a new choice point. What would this little cheater adventure-chooser do? Well, I’d put another finger in to keep a second place.
In a particularly complex volume of the series, I’d sometimes end up with the book on my hand like a glove, my fingers all stuck in various parts of the book. When I was young it never occurred to me to do something more sensible like jot down a page number.
No, I sat there with my book glove and kept on choosing but leaving part of me at the second choice. In that way, I never really chose.
Life Isn’t a Choose Your Own Adventure Book… and Thank Goodness for That
I hadn’t thought about CYOA for a while, not until a good friend of mine posted a tweet from the poet Maggie Smith, which read: “Let go of the idea that things could have happened differently, as if this life is a Choose Your Own Adventure book and you simply turned to the wrong page. You did the best you could with what you knew–and felt–at the time. Now do better, knowing more. Keep moving.”
It’s a lovely quote. And wonderful advice. Looking back on my own life, I can see how I fell victim to exactly the cognitive distortion she’s referencing. These days I’m actually a little more mellow about my “failures” and can see how they led me to the things in my life that I love. (Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous and maybe a little Hallmark, but it’s true so whatever.)
But I can also see something else that’s not explicitly in the tweet — and by the way, never be upset with a tweet (of mine or anyone else’s) for not hitting everything, the form is short and therefore limited. I can see that I used to treat my life choices in the moment like how I’d cheat-read a Choose Your Own Adventure book. I wasn’t choosing. Not really. I was clinging to alternatives, the could-have-beens and would-have-beens and should-have-beens, even as I went through the motions of choosing.
Although that’s probably where the phantom “what if” and regrets that Smith is talking about come from. Part of you remains at the story point, still wondering about the other choice.
Anyway, lovely advice. And it also occurs to me that while I could spend all my time feeling like I flipped to the wrong page, it’s as likely that — just like in a Choose Your Own Adventure book — that all that was waiting for me behind that other choice point was a grisly death. Or heartbreak. Going broke. Whatever.
Life isn’t a Choose Your Own Adventure book though — and thank goodness for that.