I’m planning a wedding, and it’s got me thinking about how we live our lives. For the most part, we make small, inconsequential choices (ignoring the possibility of butterfly effect situations: stopping to buy a candy bar, which makes us late for the train, which means we are distracted when the taxi comes out of nowhere to hit us). Sure, these actions always have consequences of some kind (sunburn today = skin cancer in 20 years), but for the most part are unimportant.
But there are a few times in our lives when we make a choice that forces a change of state: we will no longer be the same thing we were before.
Putting aside all the situations that would be like this but that we could not control (tsunami, random mugging, diagnosis of a genetic illness, getting older), we are left with a few opportunities where we can make a choice and change who we are.
Getting married is one of them: once I am wed, I will never again be able to be “unwed.” Sure, I could be divorced, separated, or widowed, but I can never again go back to the “never married” state. It’s a one-time deal.
Outwardly, this doesn’t necessarily mean much: I check a different box on government forms, woo. And I don’t know if it will change my actual relationship with my significant other–some people say yes, but then there are a lot of people who are married in all but name, and they don’t seem that different–but this idea that I am consciously changing myself in a way that I can’t take back is pernicious.
There don’t seem to be many of these kinds of choices in life. Having kids, certainly: you can never really undo that, even if they are given up for adoption. Death, of course, is a major one, at least until we get some cryogenics going on.
Writing a novel is one, I think: even if you aren’t yet published, you have created something that will never actually go away, even if it is mostly just a folder on your desktop.
Some stories require this kind of grand-scale state-changing choice, but it’s sort of surprising that not all are required to. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo at first does not make a state-changing choice: he is just going on a walk because Gandalf told him to. It could be argued that taking on the ring in Rivendell “transforms” him into the Ringbearer, and he could never again not be the ringbearer, but I don’t think that’s true. Yes, he decides to stick with it, but there are multiple times when he nearly (or actually does!) lose the ring. And (while it wouldn’t have been a good story) there remains a choice that he could have made: to just turn around and go home.
But a state change does happen in American Gods, but not until very late in the story, when Shadow has already experienced much of the hero’s journey. It is similarly the pivotal moment in Good Omens, when our young antiChrist chooses to stop the apocalypse. (What do you mean, you hadn’t read that one yet? Go read that book, right this instant!)
And the excellent Life of Pi does not offer much in the way of choice at all for our hero: he must make a series of small decisions. True, the stakes are high, but there is no one crucial decision.
For the broad swath of our lives, we make choices, but rarely do we make these kinds of life-altering decisions. Have you made one that I’ve overlooked? Are these choices similarly critical to our characters as they are to us? Tell me what you think.