Speculating about the Unknowable

September 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

I was born with an umbilical cord wrapped around my neck. That sounds worse than it actually is; “nuchal cords”, as such occurrences are called, are only slightly associated with increased death rates at birth, and it is unclear whether the increased death rate is primarily the result of the nuchal cord itself or of complications that can result while cutting it. Nevertheless, if that moment had gone differently, my life could have been a very short one.

When I was around a year old, my parents divorced; shortly afterward, I left my mother’s house to live with my grandparents. I remember exactly nothing about that period, but I’ve been told that had I stayed, my life would have been very different. For one thing, I may well not have had the opportunity to go to college at all; after all, I was the first person in my family to do so (as far as I know), and the person my mother married after my father was not someone who saw much value in education.

About two and a half years ago, I had decide where to go to college. Several very good schools in my home state, Georgia, had accepted me, as had a number of even better out-of-state schools. Unfortunately, I knew that I couldn’t afford to go to any of these schools. Thanks to a program called the HOPE scholarship, I would probably be able to afford to study at the University of Georgia, but it would have been close, and I would probably have had to work part-time for a substantial portion of my undergraduate career. If Vanderbilt hadn’t had such an excellent financial aid program, that would have been my only viable option.

These moments are the obviously turning points; I can be fairly (though not completely) confident that had they gone differently, I would not be typing this blog post in this room at the moment. Instead, I would be dead, or holding down a minimum-wage job in a town south of Atlanta, Georgia, or a part-time student at UGA.

Of course, they aren’t the only turning points. Any one of the over 600 million seconds I have been alive, something might have happened to irrevocably alter the course of my life–something that I would never have guessed would have such an impact, something that would make far too little an impression on my memory to allow me to recall it years later while writing  a blog post for a college honors seminar.

When there are so many interdependent variables, the idea that one can speculate how history would be changed by changing just one of them seems laughable. The truth is, I have no idea how my life would be different had any of these “turning points” gone differently. I can’t know. And neither, I think, can anyone else.

Well, unless I’d died at birth.

Because then I’d be dead.


Richard W.


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