A woman was once seen walking along a river. She was at peace, having had a reasonable life: not a truly great life, but not a terrible one either. She had had her fair share of tribulations, but she had also had her own happy moments as well. It was fair to say that she had an average life, and she felt that she should be content.
After all, she had tried to reach higher than she managed to land, and it was disappointing at the time, but in the end she accepted it. Her experiences were her own, and she would never want to trade them with anyone else. She had loved, and she had lost, and she was at a point in her life where her younger self thought she would be pleased.
But no matter how far she walked, and no matter how much she attempted to convince herself, she couldn’t accept it. She wanted to know if there was something more in life, something that she could have seen more of. Staring into her reflection in the river, she thought, “Did I do enough?”
A common affliction shared by every human is wishing for a different, better life. We are social creatures, and we see other people with their lives, and we cannot help feeling jealous, even when a part of our minds know that others feel the same way to us. Of all the failings in the human condition, envy is the greatest. The woman continued to ask herself if she could have had a better life, and what she could have done differently, without understanding that she had had a good time in this world. She began to imagine different possibilities that could have occurred, different choices she could have made that would have led to different outcomes, millions of possibilities splitting off from the real path, streams of lives never lived flowing out from the torrent of the actual life, and pondered what would have happened in some of them.
She came to a fork in the river, and sat on the rocky shore. Taking a pebble in her hand, she turned it over, thinking. “I may not have much time left,” she thought, “but maybe I can still speak to others, find out what happened in their lives. Maybe it would give me a better understanding of what would have happened had I taken those paths.”
The woman remembered a story her mother had told her, a lifetime ago. When her mother was just a little girl, she would read about heroes of history, and would write stories about what could have happened to them if they hadn’t done something crucial to their existence. She kept them, and read them out to the woman as she grew up, and always reminded her of the possibilities laid out in front of her. After her mother died, the woman held onto the stories, in remembrance of her.
She thought about the millions of lives that had been lived, the countless people who had experiences she never could have dreamed of. They sailed the oceans, attempting to discover new lands. They built empires that seemed like they would last millions of years, only for them to crumble once they were gone. They created life-saving inventions, and saved thousands of lives around the world; they created machines of death and destruction, in order to conquer and rule the world. Slowly, she tossed the pebble into the river, and watched it slowly sink to the bottom, before settling against the muddy riverbed.
The woman looked around, and stood up. She looked at where she had been, and where she could go. She gently waded through the river, and began walking along the edge of one of the branches. She didn’t know how long it would take, but she was determined to see what was out there.