I could do anything, but I don't.

By Emma Foley

I read a quote somewhere. I won’t pretend it was in some little-known opus of philosophy, maybe in German. I probably saw it on Instagram. Maybe it was typed over a picture of a lion or a wolf, as these things often are. Anyway, I must have been impressed, because it stuck: 

‘We’re born and we will die; everything in between is optional.’

It’s a big statement. There’s another, more famous, quote that concedes that taxes are also inevitable. But I suspect that this Instagram account was aimed at those weary of late-stage capitalism and fantasising about living ‘off-grid’—not the target audience for mention of taxes. 

It’s mostly true, I suppose, with caveats almost too obvious to type out. We’re not all in the same boat. Your dinghy might seem like a luxury yacht to someone clinging to flotsam. But acknowledgment of differing circumstances doesn’t lend itself to punchy inspirational quotes, so let’s take it at face value. 

Everything is optional. What would that look like, a life where that was the motto? Would I have stuck to my schedule this morning, despite my tiredness, despite the house being cold—or would I have rolled over in bed, and slept until gone nine? What does it say about my life that the first thing that springs to mind, when faced with my own agency and the possibilities that come with it, is the thought of snoozing my alarm? 

I’ve made concessions towards anarchy in my own small, suburban ways. It’s a cliché, but my dad’s relatively premature death added a sense of urgency to my wilder ambitions. Once you’ve seen something like that close-up, you lose the luxury of assuming you’ve got time. I had an overwhelming urge to live, to really live. Death is real, and massive, and inevitable—was I doing enough to make it all worth the unpleasantness at the end? 

In my grief, I indulged in almost nihilistic thought experiments. What if I viewed my life as a novel, and endeavoured only to make it a good story? Such notions from someone spending their days in between a safe job and raising two children.  

I could do anything. What I actually did was get my nose pierced. Perhaps I was trying to hint at more depth of character than I actually possess, or imply a misspent youth. It soothed me for a while, anyway. 

We could do anything, but we don’t. 

Everything is optional—and those options are catalogued, modelled to us in the highlights of others’ lives, always at our fingertips and yet so far from our reality.  In the space of one protracted scroll during my son’s night feed, I settle for one fleeting dream after another—one lifetime might not be enough. The omniscient ‘algorithm’ bombards me with alternatives—does it sense my ennui, or does it cause it?

Many ships have already sailed, of course. Maybe I was too sensible at seventeen, too conventional at eighteen, lacking ambition by nineteen.  I could have moved to New York and done something note-worthy there. I could have trained as a doctor, a pilot, could have been famous, maybe. I could have been nomadic, regaling family with tales of my travels over Christmas dinner, my next flight booked for Boxing Day. 

And yet, as my eldest howls with laughter at his brother dropping an olive into my cup of tea, I wonder if I ever had a choice at all.  And if I did, thank God my choices led me here.

We can do anything, but we can’t do everything.

In the year after my dad died, I traced my family tree. It was almost too easy, especially on my maternal side, owing to its tiny geographical spread. My ancestors, for centuries, lived on the same two parallel roads, gardens backing into each other.  It would be easy for me to feel worldly and superior, to marvel at how small their lives were. But one of those roads, the road that my Grandpa was born on in 1914, is the road I live on. 

The whole world, and a fleeting lifetime to experience it—yet here I am, my life playing out on the same street as my great-great-grandparents. Their choices were far more limited than mine, yet here I am. 

I could have gone anywhere, but I didn’t. 

‘We’re born and we will die; everything in between is optional.’

The certainties of that quote were all I had to go on for most of my family tree. They were born and they died, with everything in between lost to posterity. My Dad was there towards the bottom, condensed into the same format as the others:1961-2021. His whole life—everything he was, did, felt, and thought—summarised in those nine characters. It put a lump in my throat. 

I could choose to think of myself, or even my children, as some sort of pinnacle; the events of all those lifetimes that came before aligning to facilitate my birth, and subsequently theirs. But no. One day, our lives will all be dates on a page.  

This thought alone could derail me. Why load the dishwasher? Why log on for that soul-destroying meeting? Why not shave my head on a whim?  In 100 years, we’ll all be dead. Everything is optional. I could become catatonic with indecision—panicking over how best to spend the time, to insert meaning between those inevitable dates. In alternate endings, maybe I disassemble my life for the hell of it—I could, after all. 

The answer is almost too saccharine to say out loud, too mundane. It’s everything and nothing, making a day more than the sum of its hours. It’s olives dropped in tea and a million other tableaus. It won’t be traceable; maybe a phrase or a lullaby passed down, its backstory lost. I placate myself with unpredictability every so often, to the extent that it becomes predictable. A nose piercing, a career change, a spontaneous family weekend in a budget hotel.

And for all my bluster, I’ll take it—I’d choose it a thousand lifetimes over. Maybe I’ve been tricked, subdued by small pleasures and domesticity, motherhood—but I’ll take it, cling to it, even. 

I could do anything, but I don’t. 

About the author

Emma Foley is a writer and mindfulness teacher. She lives in the North of England with her husband and two young sons.

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