Have you ever thought about what your life would have looked like if you would have moved to a different country, or if you would have stayed with that person you broke up with, or if you would have said "Yes" to that thing you said "No" to?
The first lesson I learned when getting older is that with every choice you make in life, you decide for one thing and thereby decide against an infinite number of other things. It's an inescapable truth of life that we cannot do everything at the same time, so every choice you make in life sets you onto a path in a certain direction. And the older you get, the more decisions lie behind you, and the less possibilities lie ahead of you.
At a certain point, you might start wondering whether you are happy with where that path led you. You start asking yourself whether all of your choices were good, and what your life would look life if you had made a different choice at a certain point in time. If you get stuck in this contemplation, this can lead to anxiety and unhappiness.
I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills that I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. - Sylvia Plath
This is how The Midnight Library begins. It takes this feeling that reflects a fundamental struggle of life and that may be familiar to you, and turns it into a heartwarming story with a not so subtle message. In my eyes, the best books are the ones that help us deal with our deepest feelings and thoughts by showing us that we're not alone in feeling them, and then make us see things from a different perspective. And this is exactly what The Midnight Library did for me.
In the story, the main character Nora is deeply unhappy with her life and decides to end it. But instead of dying, she finds herself in a boundless library with millions of books - each one telling the story of her life after making one different decision. Nora gets to choose one regret at a time, and is then allowed to re-live her current life as the person who made a different choice.
As you can probably imagine, all those lives are vastly different, with charms and disappointments each of their own. She gets to live out all of her dream careers, relationships and personalities, just to find that each of them would come with their own set of disappointments and challenges.
"There are patterns to life… Rhythms. It is so easy, while trapped in just the one life, to imagine that times of sadness or tragedy or failure or fear are a result of that particular existence. That it is a by-product of living a certain way, rather than simply living. I mean, it would have made things a lot easier if we understood there was no way of living that can immunise you against sadness. And that sadness is intrinsically part of the fabric of happiness."
When you start reading the book, you already know how it has to end. But while the message that the author Matt Haig wants to transmit is clear from the beginning and some of the quotes feel corny and worn out, I think there is still value in living through the stories with Nora, and reinforcing the lessons she learns. Because while we can read life's wisdom in a simple sentence, we will never absorb it the same way as through a story.
"It is easy to mourn the lives we aren't living. Easy to wish we'd developed other talents, said yes to different offers. Easy to wish we'd worked harder, loved better, handled our finances more astutely, been more popular, stayed in the band, gone to Australia, said yes to the coffee or done more bloody yoga. It takes no effort to miss the friends we didn't make and the work we didn't do and the people we didn't marry and the children we didn't have. It is not difficult to see yourself through the lens of other people, and to wish you were all the different kaleidoscopic versions of you they wanted you to be. It is easy to regret, and keep regretting, ad infinitum, until our time runs out. But it is not the lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself."
The lesson from The Midnight Library is one we already know, but might need to hear again, depending on the moment in our lives that we are in. It is a reminder to appreciate what you have in your current life, and (as cliché as it sounds) to experience it to the fullest with all its ups and downs. Because no matter which choice you would have made, and no matter where you would have ended up: what makes your life worth living, is simply living it.
I think that's a beautiful message, and might help you appreciate life a tiny bit more. In a TED Talks Daily episode, Daniel Pink frames the feeling of regret as a chance to guide us to a good life - as long as we deal with the feeling in the right way.
Instead of trying to deny your regrets, or letting them fester, you can use them as pointers to what is important to you, and what you want more of in your life. He says "by understanding what people regret the most, we can understand what people value the most."
For instance, if you regret not staying in touch with a friend, this could show you how much you value relationships in your life, and motivate you in the future to put more effort into your relationships. Daniel Pink also shared that most people regret the things they didn't do more than the things they did. So when in doubt - go for it!