Your perfect job turns out to have a maniac boss and it’s not what you expected. You discover your spouse isn’t perfect. Or, as happened to me, you’re diagnosed with a health problem and your world turns upside down. Marriages, goals and life in general can’t be programmed according to our plans and wishes. It just doesn’t work that way.
As life sends us unexpected hurdles and experiences, we decide how we’ll respond. Later, even when our decision has turned out well, many of us ask, “What if I’d made a different decision, or been dealt different cards? Who would I be and what would I be doing? How would life be now?”
Clare O’Donohue writes about the process of reviewing choices and achieving internal peace. In one scene of the book, a woman wants to see a former boyfriend. Nell tries to understand why Bernie is so intent on seeing him. Eleanor (a mutual friend) uses the image of sewing a quilt to help Nell understand the internal journey Bernie needs to make:
“‘Why is a sixty-something-year-old woman still carrying a torch for her high school sweetheart? . . . I don’t think it’s the man. It’s the life that could have been.’
“‘But she’s had a good life, hasn’t she?’ [Nell] asked. “Why have any regrets about the road not taken?”
“‘Oh, I hate that,’ Eleanor said. ‘That idea that we can’t have any regrets because our experiences make us who we are. That’s greeting-card psychology. We all have regrets. The people we’ve hurt, the times fear held us back from exciting possibilities. . . .’
“‘If she’s going to have regrets anyway, what good does coming here do her?” I finally asked my grandmother.
“‘She needs to make her peace with them,” Eleanor said. “Bernie is wondering what might have been, and she can’t shake herself out of it. People get stuck like that sometimes. . . . It’s like when you make a quilt. . . . You see a pattern you like and you think you want to make something just like it for yourself. But as you find fabrics, and cut and sew, the idea becomes something else. Something real, but something different from that pattern. If you measure the success of your quilt, or your life, by what you started out to do, more often than not you will decide you’ve failed. But if you realize that the pattern you followed is the one you created for yourself, you will love the quilt you made, and the life you made, more than the one you thought you were supposed to make’” (The Double Cross, Clare O’Donohue, pp 27-28, New York: Penguin Books, 2010).
It is not as simple for us as Eleanor makes it sound. Sometimes in looking at the quilt of our life, we realize we need to make changes. But in the end, Eleanor is right: the pattern of our quilt is the one we create with the patches of cloth we have, and it’s always different from the life we expected. Everything we live becomes part of our evolving pattern. We decide what to do with it.
In the best of worlds, we grow and learn, become wiser, more forgiving and loving, and more at peace. We adapt, let go of the past and create a different quilt than we originally imagined. The “what if” questions lose their importance. We live the life in front of us and create good from it for ourselves and others. No matter what the fabric, this type of life is a quilt of beauty and love.