Have you ever wondered what life would be like if one crucial experience in your history had gone another way? Or if you’d made a different decision at a certain point?

We often see this kind of ‘What if?’ scenario in movies or on TV, but do we reflect on the possibilities in our own lives?

Of course, everything in life happens (and has happened) as it should. We cannot change the past, so it’s not something I dwell upon much. But it struck me after an experience on Friday night.

I went to a mall – alone – to get something which I just didn’t have a chance to get at any other time. Malls always have a different kind of energy at night, particularly on weekends. For me, it was all the more rare because it was the first time in a few years that I’d been there alone at night. I’m usually with my wife and kids, or just my wife.

Being alone was a throwback to my university days and early 20s, which feels like a lifetime ago. I noticed that most of the people were around that age. And there I stood, feeling out of place because I’m on the cusp of age 40, surrounded by relative youth, and all alone – unlike almost everyone else.

And the feelings came back to me. The feelings of being by myself – because, as an introvert, my younger self would usually be in such places alone (due to my stellar social skills). The feelings of a particular period where I wanted to get married, but felt very little hope of it actually happening – because, with my social phobias, I couldn’t see how someone like me could meet anyone out in public.

And I considered: what if I’d never gotten married? What if I was now 39 years old and single, going to a place like this at night. And seeing all these people…these young, beautiful, mostly-coupled people – females, particularly.

I’d likely feel that same feeling…the desperation of wanting to find my person. But, being so far advanced beyond that youth, would anyone have found me attractive? Would I have had any chance at all to ‘get’ someone?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not just about age. I’m not equating advanced age to inability to attract a mate (although, realistically, there probably is some truth to that).

It’s about my insecurities: of being a loner, and a loser. Those feelings were strong back then, and they really stayed with me until I got married. Marriage did wonders for wiping those feelings away, and fatherhood took it much further, because now – in public – I no longer have the mental space to worry about what others are thinking about me, because I’m focused on my children.

(And yes, I know people probably aren’t thinking about me…but it was a habitual thought that stuck with me most of my life because I was always a loner.)

So, it got me thinking: would those same insecurities have been with me if I was still single now? Would they have been even worse?

Would I have been ploughing through the nights, days, weeks, months, years, and even decades… single? Wanting to find someone, but not succeeding.

How would people see me? What would they think of me? Because, on this night, I could literally have been that person in the alternate reality – given the lack of signs indicating otherwise. I stood there alone: No wife nor female companion. No children. No friends, even.

Those thoughts saddened me…to think that this could have been my life.

But then I considered the opposite.

Maybe I would have felt empowered. Maybe I would have excelled in my writing, or personal development, or some other venture.

Maybe I would no longer have worried so much about marriage, and resigned myself to dying alone. Maybe I wouldn’t have cared what people thought. Maybe I would have been happy.

Who knows? Who knows how it would have turned out?

What I do know is that I’m grateful. I’m grateful that this experience was just a brief window into what could have been.

I’m grateful for my wife and kids.

Also, being surrounded by relative youth, it hit me how old I really am. Many will say that 40 isn’t really old. And I’ve never really worried about numbers anyway, so it’s not like I consider 40 as the first step of my road to senility.

But I just feel old.

The other day, I was in a queue, and a younger guy needed to ask me something. He spoke very respectfully to me, calling me “Uncle”. “Is Uncle ordering?”

And that hit me hard.

I mean, I literally am an uncle. I’ve been one for 11 years already. But it still hit me hard.

Just like the time years ago, when I was 18 and in my first year of university. I was walking outside a building and a lady needed her young child to step aside for me. She told the kid that this ‘man’ needed to get past.

And it shocked me. It hurt me back then – to be called a ‘man’ at that age. Because in my mind, I was still a teenager. I was a boy.

In those years, I consciously avoided acknowledging adulthood for as long as possible. (Which, incidentally, is why I only started driving lessons at age 22.)

So, this was a similar feeling.

But in reality, it doesn’t surprise me. As I often say, life has felt immensely long for me. I feel like I’m 100 years old now…like I’ve lived through so, so much.

“Time flies” for other people. Not me.

And I also think of my older daughter. How close she is to her teenage years. And how she could realistically be married and have a kid a decade from now.

It’s crazy to consider, given the way I see her now, and the relative lack of maturity she displays, but it can change quickly. Adolescence can cause dramatic shifts.

So, I hold on to her innocence now, while she still has it. Both for her and her younger sister – who still seems diminutive because she’s physically small for her age.

Anyway…I don’t really have any ground-breaking insight or wisdom to share with you through this experience. It was just an experience that made an impact…something I wanted to preserve here so that I can be reminded of it someday in future.

How about you, though?

Have you ever reflected on ‘what if’s? And have those reflections led you to greater appreciation of what is?