My encounter with COVID in January of this year was relatively benign. Perhaps the most challenging part of my days of quarantine was putting up with my wife’s repeated comments about how bad (or good, depending on your perspective) life must be upstairs where I had food delivered and I could just sit around all day reading a book. Maybe she had a point? I can’t remember a time when I had three days with nowhere to be and nothing to do. I guess it was kinda marvelous.

Intrigued by the teaser, “a dazzling novel about all the choices that go into a life well-lived,” I picked up The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. It’s a story about a young woman, Nora, who feels as though she is failing miserably and decides life’s not worth living. The result of this choice is a visit to the Midnight Library where she is confronted by the librarian, Mrs Elm. 

“Between life and death there is a library,” she said. “And within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try out another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?

With that, Nora is presented with her Book of Regrets, which describes the numerous things she voiced having wished she’d done differently. After this immensely painful experience reading through them she’s given the opportunity to explore the books in the library – each one describing the life she would have lived had she chosen something differently. With each book she can choose to continue living that story rather than return to her original life.

While I can honestly say I don’t live with any serious regrets, I think we all look at our lives and ask how different decisions might have affected us for the better. 

Do you live with regrets?

I was reminded of this book recently as I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Making Sense with Sam Harris. He is one of the most articulate humans I’ve ever listened to and I love his work. On this particular podcast, he and his guest, Kieran Setiya, discuss “Philosophy and the Good Life’ and specifically how philosophy can make your life better in real ways (no togas needed!). 

During the conversation they address the question of regret and discuss the scenario where one could opt for a different life, one that would be distinctly better. The only catch is that it would be wildly different from your current life, and you wouldn’t know any of the people you know now. Are you willing to give up the attachments you have and the people you love so life would be “better?”

Despite the fact that this isn’t a real option, and few would choose it if it were, it’s still a fascinating question. What I think most people miss out on in life is that the positives and negatives are inextricably linked together. According to Mr Setiya, almost everything good in your life wouldn’t have happened had your life gone differently in some relatively minor way (but clearly different good things would have happened). Because of the butterfly effect, the consequence of minor change would amplify over time. 

The beauty of this life is that it’s full of more good things than any one person can have. By a lot! Would you want to live in a world where we knew and experienced every good thing? Or is it better to have almost unlimited good choices and know that we will never get to most? I think the latter is preferable, but that means we are faced with tough choices and big disappointments. On the other hand we are rewarded with almost unlimited potential for excitement.

Near the end of of Nora’s time in the Midnight Library, she opens a book that contains what most would describe as her perfect life. She loves this life. Yet as she lives it she feels something missing. Many things are missing. Perhaps she senses the emptiness of obtaining that joy without the accompanying pain and struggle? Despite wanting to stay, she recognizes that this life lacks the little things that brought her joy, the small but meaningful effect she had on others. As she reflects on her choice, she sees the following quote, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

With that she chooses to return to the life she was trying to leave, and finds the beauty that’s already there.

After my return to work from my “COVID holiday,” I ran into a co-worker who loves to read. I told her that I had just finished The Midnight Library and she immediately said how disappointed that Nora didn’t choose to stay in her “perfect life.” I couldn’t have disagreed more (and we have agreed to disagree). My response, “The best life to live is the one we already have. That’s what the author was trying to say.”

Our goal is not to carve out the perfect life, it’s to find joy and meaning in the one we have.

(Click here to read my previous blog post on avoiding regrets and making decisions)

  • Ann
    2 years ago
    I loved this book. It makes you think about what your life would be like if you made different decisions. And how our choices create our life. It was definitely thought provoking.
    • Nate
      2 years ago
      Thanks Ann 😊. Thought provoking for sure!
  • Alyson
    2 years ago
    This one was already on my to read list. I’ll have to Move it up, sounds like a great read!
  • Hill
    2 years ago
    So well said, makes me think of the part in Solve for Happy when he takes you through his exercise of the magic eraser and taking away anything painful or unpleasant from your past, but it also meant taking away the lessons and the growth You’ve gained.