It’s never too late to be what you might have been,” is a quote attributed to Victorian-era novelist George Eliot. These are my own meanderings on the truthfulness and helpfulness of this oft-quoted quote sometimes seen on everything from refrigerator magnets to coffee cups.
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Perusing the Internet, you’re bound to come across certain things: memes, cute animal photos, clickbait, and quotes. One that came across my path the other day was, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”
It’s a quote commonly attributed to Victorian-era author George Eliot, though this attribution apparently has no basis in fact. It’s one of those quotes that sounds, at first glance, so inspirational. It’s never too late! You can do it!
But something troubled me about this quote. Why? Am I just a negative person? Perhaps. But there was some other reason this quote kept churning endlessly in my mind: Fundamentally, it isn’t true.
It is, absolutely, too late to be what you might have been. What you might have been is a thing that does not exist. It’s just an idea.
“What I might have been” is a story I tell myself. And “might have been” are, ultimately, regret words. Words of sadness. Of lost possibilities.
The bad news is that you’ll never be what you might have been. If there’s a dream you gave up when you were young, you’ll never be that young person fulfilling that dream.
Our body replaces its cells, or so “they” say every seven years or so. You are, physically, not the same person that you were back in those days that you think about when you think about what might have been.
And, though our personalities tend to stay frustratingly constant, what you’ve been through in your life since you were that person who might have become what you might have been has shaped you into someone different than when you were that person.
While there’s nothing wrong with pursuing old interests you shelved until later, trying too hard to grasp onto that person that you might have been, could be damaging your getting to know the person you are right now.
If you take the time to get to know that person deeply, you might be surprised. Maybe that person doesn’t want to write something “deep and profound,” but wants to write rom-com stories, blog posts, or Ivy Tran Food Court Detective like Diane Nguyen in Bojack Horseman.) Or doesn’t even want to write and wants to volunteer at her local library, or learn the ukulele. Can you let that new person be happy about that and not berate her for not being something that she might have wanted to be once?
Something is freeing in letting go of the person you might have been to be with the person you are now. And something essential and urgent about it too:
At some point it becomes truly too late to be what we might have been.
As my mother was halfway through the slow and terrible decline of ALS, she handed me the small notepad she was using for communication at the time. Her message was brief and somber: “We all have an expiration date.”
Philip Pullman, in his masterful “children’s'” book The Amber Spyglass, has a scene in which every person has “a death:” a figure which usually stays, gracefully, behind a person and out of the way.
Our expiration date isn’t something that we like to dwell on. Like the characters in the book, we don’t want to see our death or know our expiration date. But turning around, occasionally, to look at it and acknowledge it is something we should do from time to time.
It’s a good practice which, at the very least, can help remind us of the preciousness and finiteness of life.
Sometimes I find myself getting angry about the past, or inventing stories about alternate universes where there are other versions of myself living out all the different choices and possibilities that I didn’t allow in this one. Fantasies like that can be a fun exercise in fiction if you can separate it from negative emotion. But doing so can be a difficult feat of mental gymnastics. I sometimes stop to ask myself if this is how I want to spend the rest of this time here on Earth: kowtowing to the needs of a demanding imaginary nonexistent person.
If you need to become reacquainted with yourself, I think some things can help: for some of us, it’s journaling or meditation. For others, it might be talking with a trusted friend or counselor. Or prayer. Or exercise, which can allow you to run away from the world of “what-ifs” while you run (or walk or swim or…) your body into a state of better health.
Ultimately, it’s too late to be what you might have been.
But that’s OK. It’s even good. Celebrate and make friends with who you are now.
There. That’s my brief essay that wanted to be written. But while I was thinking about the topic, my mind also went to fictional characters who did recapture an old dream later in life. What I was trying to say here is not that it’s not OK to reacquaint yourself with old goals, but, instead, reflect on the harmfulness in trying to recapture a past and a self that is gone.
One older fictional character who gets the chance to (humorously) relive an old dream is Mrs. Pollifax, who, as a widow, finally gets to live out her dream of being a secret CIA agent. The stories were light and enjoyable reading during a Summer road trip.
What do you think? Is this quote true?
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