The “What If” Game

what if

Cartoon by Tom Fishburne

Thanks to modern medicine and clean water, most of us will live into our seventies and even our eighties. Compare our lifespan to that of the rabbits that hop through our yards or the cats sleeping their lives away on our couches, and we live relatively long lives. The difference between us and other animals is that we measure life by hours, days, and years. Rabbits and cats exist, until they don’t, with nary a thought about the brevity of their lives. They live, and then they die. We humans also live and die, but we tend to think a lot about our lives and their ultimate ends. We wonder, is there life after death? We strive to extend our lives as long as possible, fearing that despite what Christians tell us, there might not be anything waiting for us after we die; that death is the equivalent of shutting off our computers. As an atheist, I believe that the only thing that awaits me after death is endless darkness and silence. I have often pondered, in the still of night, being alive and then dead; that moment when all that went into making me who I am ceases to exist.

I don’t fear dying. It’s a waste of time to fear that which you cannot control. That said, I do ponder how best to live what life I have left. Age and health problems have done that to me. If I live to be seventy, I have less than eight years left before I am no more. It seems like yesterday that I was a young buck running free, thinking that I was immortal. It seems like yesterday that I enrolled at Midwestern Baptist College, married the love of my life, and fathered six children. It seems like yesterday that I was pastoring churches, winning souls, and investing my life in the work of the ministry. Now I am sixty-one years old, grandfather to twelve wonderful children, and come June I will draw my first social security check. Compared to my life when I was young, time is moving at breakneck speed. Come May, my oldest granddaughter will graduate from high school. Why, it seems like yesterday she was a toddler clumsily running through our home. Now she is a grown woman with plans to go to college. As I look at my grandchildren, I see how quickly they are growing, both in stature and intellect. Even my youngest grandchild, Ezra, has doubled in size from a few months ago. Born six weeks premature, Ezra is now growing faster than a feeder hog on corn. I suspect he’ll be an NFL linebacker by age two.

In two months, it will be Thanksgiving, and in three months we will celebrate Christmas. Didn’t we just celebrate these holidays a couple of months ago? On and on, with or without us, time moves along, never stopping for us to catch our breath or reset our navigation. I often find that I am in bondage to my to-do list. As my health declines and I feel the need to join the cat at the end of couch, the list gets longer and longer. I feel oppressed when I think about it. Damn, so much to do. I’m never going to get these things done. Silly, I know, because the fact of the matter is that most of what is on my list doesn’t really matter. If I get to the things on my list, fine, but if I don’t, will it make one bit of difference? I doubt it.  As I get closer and closer to the end of life, I find myself — on most days — focusing on the people that matter to me: my family and friends, especially Polly, Jason, Nathan, Jaime, Bethany, Laura, Josiah, Aaliyah, Victoria, Karah, Levi, Emma, Guin, Gabby, Morgan, Alayna, Lily, Charlee, and Ezra. They are the sum of my life, or most it anyway.

One of the games older people play is the “What If” Game.  Have you played this game? I know I have. What if my dad didn’t move his family all over the place and I got to go to the same school instead of attending ten schools in twelve years? What if my mom and dad stayed married, instead of divorcing when I was fourteen? What if my dad was still alive instead of dying at age forty-nine and my mom was still alive instead of killing herself at age fifty-four? What if I married the first girl I loved instead of the last one? What if I went to Briercrest Bible College instead of Midwestern Baptist College? What if my parents stayed members of the Episcopal church instead of joining up with Fundamentalist Baptists? What if I stayed on as pastor of Somerset Baptist Church instead of moving 1,600 miles away to Texas to co-pastor Community Baptist Church? What if I never moved away from Southeast Ohio? Or Northwest Ohio? Or Central Michigan? Or Southwest Arizona? What if? What if? What if?

Life is made up of countless decisions. Each decision we make alters our lives, sometimes in insignificant ways, other times in ways that forever change us. Every decision moves us further down the path of life. While we would like to think that, if we had done differently at a certain point in life, things would have turned out better for us, how can we know for sure that that would be the case? Alter your timeline at one point and everything changes. And isn’t that the sum of what we call life?  Ever-moving, ever-changing. The most that any of us can do is use the information at hand to make the best possible decisions. I have made countless bad decisions, choices that altered my life and that of my family in profound ways. Shit, I tell myself, I would sure like a do-over. Well, there are no do-overs, no second chances. All any of us can do is learn from the past and try to do better the next time.

I have also made innumerable good decisions. I could play the “What If” Game and wonder if the good decisions I’ve made could have been better, but that’s a game for fools to play. I don’t believe in soulmates. I suspect had I gone to a different college or lived in a different place, I would have met a woman, fallen in love, gotten married, and lived happily ever after — or not. That said, that’s not what happened, and when I met a beautiful, dark-haired seventeen-year-old girl named Polly at Midwestern Baptist College, I knew she was the one for me. This one choice altered my life in more ways than I could ever imagine. We were naïve youths when we said I do, but here we are five decades later, still in love, and most of all, best friends (even after I boiled her fairly new enamel cast iron pot dry last night while I was forgetfully busy writing a blog post). Both of us could play the “What If” Game, but why would we? Is not what we have good enough? Is it not in fact more than we could ever have imagined? Instead of what wondering about what might have been, I choose to live in the present, grateful for all the blessings that have come my way. As life winds down for me, I choose to think about what I have instead of what might have been.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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6 Comments

  1. Becky Wiren

    I feel the same. I look at my sons and while they have disabilities, they are good people. And my husband is still going in spite of needing 2 stents last month! That was a real shock. I just had carpal tunnel surgery of left wrist and will probably have right wrist done. Then the knees are bad. So I focus on what I like that doesn’t involve as much walking. Playing music again is fun! I’ve been also experimenting with some foreign instruments. It’s all fun although I also like to get better and better.

    Who knows, Bruce? With modern medicine you might be here longer than you think. You are so lucky to have so many children and grandchildren. Since I may not have those grandkids I have cats; they are my babies.

    Anyway Bruce, to me you are like a pastor to the struggling non-Christians or non-evangelicals or non-IFBers. You are kind to people with diverse ideas which is more than most Christian ministers that I knew. (I do have 2 lovely Christian ministers who are women, maybe that is the difference.) And I will continue to hope that your pain can be treated well and you are comfortable.

    Reply
  2. ObstacleChick

    Science fiction does a good job with what if scenarios with alternate universes, time travel, etc. Ot is a fun topic to ponder.

    I see some what if with all my half siblings. If my parents had stayed together things would have been worse as my father became increasingly more abusive. My half siblings suffered a lot, some irreparably. My mom’s son stayed on the rural town, didnt go to college, and has become one of the most devout Christians I know (and I think his wife is getting a little fed up with it – I assume their gap will widen as she just started college this fall because she decided it was a mistake not to have ever gone).

    You and Polly are so fortunate to be able to enjoy all your grandkids! What a joy!

    Reply
  3. Carmen

    Becky and Obstacle Chick seem to have said what I wanted to say. . and did a better job of it! But I loved your blog post, Bruce, even if there was a good pot sacrificed. (I’d have had a few choice words for you, though) You and I are the same age, married young, and have lots of grandchildren. So much more in common than in differences. So it’s not surprising that I think along the same lines about life. It’s futile to look back and play the what if? game; much more wisdom in embracing the here-and-now and tackling the Bucket List (before it becomes the _uck it list) 🙂

    Reply
  4. Carmen

    test. Left a comment but it didn’t appear. .

    Reply
  5. Becky Wiren

    Another thing I think about what if: IF I had ended up as a scientist, I would’ve attended different colleges. Which means I would never have met my husband and my sons would never have existed. I do take comfort in the possibility of multi-universes as I have to be a physicist in one, and a classical musician in another. Maybe a pop singer in a third. It’s a fun way to think of WHAT IF without wishing the ones I love into non-existence. 😉

    Reply
  6. Stephanie

    Isn’t it so much more interesting without the belief that god has a specific plan for your life?

    Reply

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