The Four Faces of “What If” as Shown in Films

For the past few weeks, I’ve taken to listening to motivational speech montages. It’s easy to find them; just go to YouTube and type “motivation”, and you’ll find any number of content creators who took audio clips from motivational speakers (usually angry black men), set them to epic music (probably by Hans Zimmer, or whoever the composer for the music in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies is), spliced them onto montages of inspiring images (mostly of people working out), and posted them for people to see. A couple of my favorite creators are MotivationGrid and Younes Marxieu, though I’m sure there are others that are as good, if not better.

Anyway, one of the speakers featured is Greg Plitt, who was apparently a fitness model, actor, former army ranger, and reality show contestant on top of being a motivational speaker (he unfortunately died earlier this year trying to outrun a train, a fact that a friend of mine finds deliciously funny). The quote of his that stuck to me was this:

“I failed” is ten times more of a man than “what if”, because “what if” never went to the arena.

The first time I heard it, it sounded so powerful, as real and rousing as a bucket of ice water in the face. But when I shared it with my friend, he dismissed it outright. “Just because you say ‘what if’ doesn’t mean you’re afraid”, he said.

Thinking about it, I realize he’s right. “What if” is a phrase that is purely speculative by itself. Depending on how you fill the blanks after that, it can mean different things.

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“What if” can show a forward-facing or an over-the-shoulder perspective, and it can be a buoying or burdensome question.

You may not believe me, that friend of mine, or the awesome table above that I took the trouble to create. Fine, don’t take my word for it… but you might consider listening to Hollywood.

Some people say “what if” in the context of fear of failure, rejection, or pessimism.

“What if” can be a preface to bleak possibilities. This is the perspective that sees the future as a minefield, a constant stream of threats to be avoided and risks to be minimized. When I think about this aspect, I think about George McFly from Back to the Future:

Some people say “what if” in the context of innovation, brainstorming, and a spirit of adventure.

This one tumbles out of the lips of inventors, scientists, artists, explorers, and imaginative children. This is basically the “what if” that pushes the envelope, a conviction with such substance and weight behind it that it has the potential to change others’ perceptions–and possibly reality itself. This is the bravest incarnation of “what if”, and it reminds me of Ellie from Up:

Some people say “what if” in the context of regret or agonizing over a missed chance.

There is a Filipino word, sayang, that doesn’t have a perfect English counterpart. People have dreams, desires that they want to fulfill, and sometimes they do not act on them because of fear. When they decide not to act, and after the time to act passes, regret sets in. Sayang.

(Note: Sayang can be used in other contexts, like a near-miss or something that didn’t work out in the end.)

This face of “what if” is reminiscent of a character from Heart and Souls, a film from the 90’s starring Robert Downey Jr. I couldn’t find a clip of it online, but basically, it’s about a man, Thomas Reilly (played by RDJ), who helps four souls correct mistakes that they made in life. One of them, Harrison, regrets not having sung onstage, and the group decides to make this right by having him sing the US National Anthem in front of a crowd. When Harrison tries to back out out of fear, RDJ confronts him:

Harrison Winslow: Who came up with this ridiculous concept anyway? Resolve your entire life in one bold stroke? What if I fail? And I will. I’ll fail. I’m telling you. I always fail. Then my whole life will be a complete failure.

Thomas Reilly: No offense, Harrison. But you died a failure because you never tried.

If you get the chance, watch this movie. If it doesn’t make you smile or cry at any point, I have to conclude that you are a robot or some kind of soulless yet animated husk.

Some people say “what if” in the context of relief, of realizing how lucky they are. 

Every decision has a cost and a benefit. For everything you gain from every choice you make, you also stand to lose something because you gave up doing something else. That’s called opportunity cost, and while Mr. Plitt saw the backward-facing “what if” as an expression of regret, it could actually be a way to appreciate your good fortune because for all you know, you might have gotten off lucky. A wonderful example can be found in 500 Days of Summer:

Depending on how you look at your life, whether you look at the past or the future, whether you lean towards hope or despair, you’ll have a different take. But remember, all those perspectives are just based on speculation. If you want to avoid all the heartache and headache associated with “what if”, perhaps the best thing to do is to just act on things, not necessarily without fear, but certainly with the acceptance that while things might go wrong, they just might go right.

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Action vs. Caution

A lot of the time, I think about opportunity cost. But I don’t think of it in the context of “What am I doing now, and what else could I be doing now that would be better?” I think of it in the context of “What am I doing now, and how could I best do it so that my future self experiences as little stress as possible?”

Case in point: recently, there have been heavy rains every night in Metro Manila. This has led to extremely heavy traffic. How heavy? Well, during the week from September 29 to October 3, it was difficult to get a ride for three nights. Three nights ago was the worst; I normally take one jeepney ride and one bus ride to get to my job on the night shift. That night, though, it was impossible. I started walking from my house, and I just kept walking, hoping to find a chance to get a ride along the way.

Not one chance presented itself. The only things I saw were people desperately waiting for a ride or lining up to get a train.

Next thing I knew, I had walked all the way from my house to my office, sixteen minutes late. If I’d waited for a ride, the trip would probably have taken four or five hours, one or two hours late for my shift.

So on Saturday night, it was raining heavily again. Early Sunday morning, I was due to join a half-marathon run, one that I’d been looking forward to for a couple of months.

The last few nights played over and over in my head. Rain, traffic, a mass of humanity cursing, vehicles stuck on roads and in floods. The possibility of those same scenes recurring crossed my mind, did a one-eighty turn, came back, and struck a pose, staying in the limelight, like those models on those fashion shows working the runway. The possible repercussions–missing the gun start due to traffic, or getting sick from running in the rain–followed, like models wearing different outfits with the same basic concept. Remember that scene from Zoolander, where Mugatu was presenting his “Derelicte” line of clothing? I’m thinking the theme here was “Pessimiste” or “Floodstruck” or something.

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The outfits were made from debris sifted from Metro Manila floodwaters. Rags 2 Riches has some competition, it seems.

So I texted my girlfriend saying I might not run the race the next day. I was seeing the past nights’ apocalypse pulling an encore, and I didn’t want to risk it. Reasonably, she said that there were hours to go, and the floods and traffic would probably have subsided by then.

This isn’t the first time I’ve played Negative Neville to her Positive Patricia. But this was different. This was a situation where, in the very back of my mind, I knew what I really wanted: I wanted to run. I wanted to pit myself against myself. I wanted to go the distance, and see how hard I could push myself doing it. I was no masochist, but I wanted to hear my body screaming at me, saying that it had nothing left, and hear my mind negotiate for it to pull out a little more, burning every possible fuel to get to the end. I wanted to get the medal. Heck, I even wanted the drawstring knapsack that I probably will never use more than twice a year.

I wanted all of it. And for me to get it, I had to think positive.

So I was torn; should I stick to my defensively pessimistic default? Or should I take the old positivity out of the psychological closet, shake the dust off it, and try it on for size?

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I always put on a suit when I weigh alternatives. Businessmen make better decisions than normal folk, right?

And that’s when it hit me: to be safe, I always erred on the side of caution. But no matter how you slice it or dress it up, an error is still an error. If I made the call not to go, I could miss a chance I desperately wanted to seize… a chance that, at the moment, was not totally inaccessible to me. It was just my brain in the way, painting a grim future that wasn’t determined yet.

So I texted back, told her that she was right, and started preparing for the race.

*****

Epilogue: Things weren’t as bad as I thought they’d be on race day; no rain, no floods, no heavy traffic or gridlock. The grounds we had to go to to get freebies and take photos after the run were a little muddy, but it was fine. I didn’t get a new record (it was only my second official half-marathon, to be fair), but I was satisfied. And I am excited for my next official run. 🙂