What’s the biggest and most defining moment of your life?
A friend asked me this question recently, and my initial response was, Only one? I’m not sure I could point to one particular moment. The question reminded me of a conversation I had with my mother a number of years ago. I can’t remember how we got on the topic—perhaps we were talking about my grandmother, who was an irascible, often unhappy woman for most of the time I knew her. However it started, we got on the subject of my high school and college years, and I asked her a) if she thought people really changed, and b) if she’d thought I’d changed, because I felt like I had. She said, rather, that she didn’t think I’d changed in a fundamental way. I was still the same person I was when I was a kid. Rather, she said, we tend to grow into ourselves as we progress through our life.
I tend to think that’s true. A life is an accumulation of decision points, choices and signposts along the way, and altering any one of them might possibly change the outcome of our life profoundly. So I could point to any number of moments along the way: choosing to go to New Hampshire for college, then choosing a year later to transfer to Missouri. Spending a summer in D.C. instead of going with my parents to London. Turning down a job offer for a copy editor post at an English language daily in Prague (I’m still kicking myself over that). Saying yes to another date with Mike. Buying a house. Selling a house. Forging the friendships that led to my first publication and, eventually, my first novel.
There’s usually a defining moment for a character in a novel, but if you imagined their lives beyond the pages of the book, certainly you could conjure up any number of turning points for them. (And really, it’s good if you get more than one such moment in a book.)
But if we spend our lives becoming more fully who we are, as opposed to truly changing, does that mean our sense of choice is an illusion? When we get to those defining moments, it would mean that really, there’s only one outcome we would choose, one decision we would make.
Is it one or the other? What defines your life?