Reprinted in its entirely from today's Sunday Opinion page of The New York Times:
The "If Only" Train
This morning, I heard the subway train pulling up to the platform as I was going down the station steps. I came through the turnstile as the doors were closing, just in time to watch the train pull away without me. Whenever that happens, I find myself thinking, “If only ...” If only I’d taken a shorter shower or walked a little faster or crossed against the light, I’d have made that train. Somehow, I always imagine that missing the train is the result of a single delay, not the loss of a second here and a second there since the alarm first went off. Perhaps I’d have caught that train if I’d gone to bed a few minutes earlier the night before. And while I stand on the platform, waiting for the next train, I have time to ponder the significance of the train that just pulled out. I can’t help feeling that if I’d caught that train, I’d already be in the future — and not the future I’ll eventually enter by hanging out in the present until the next train comes. How much better or worse that future would be I can’t really say.
This, of course, leads to another thought. Over the past 30 years, I’ve missed lots of “if only” trains in the New York subway system. What if I’d caught one of them, say, 25 years ago? Where would I be now? And what about the trains I made by a hair all these years? Surely those were almost “if only” trains. Because I caught them I must already be in a different future than I would have been had I missed them and gotten stuck in the present back in the past. Time travel is so confusing, even on the Broadway local.
If I were a different kind of person, I might have found myself thinking that I was destined to miss this morning’s train. But as it is, I believe in chance, the thoroughly entangled skein of microscopic events — the seconds here and seconds there — out of which our lives are shaped. If I believed in fate, I would be happy to have missed that train, knowing that it was all part of the plan. Instead, I stand there on the edge of the platform thinking “if only,” and looking into the dark of the tunnel for the lights of the next train, which someone, somewhere up the line, has just missed by a hair.