Long Day’s Journey Into Night: What Might Have Been

“What the hell was it that I wanted to buy?”

That line is said by James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical play (made several times into a movie), “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

James Tyrone is a stand in for O’Neill’s real life father, James O’Neill, who made a fortune playing the title role in “The Count of Monte Cristo” over and over and over again. When he tried to take on different roles, audiences wouldn’t accept him. For James O’Neill, this was the central tragedy of his life.

It’s the tragedy that Marlon Brando, playing a failed boxer, echoes so beautifully in “On The Waterfront” when he says to his brother, played by Rod Steiger, “I could have been a contender.”

James is convinced he could have been one of the leading actors of his generation had he not been so focused on pursuing the almighty dollar. As the poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.”

In a long monologue, James reminisces on what might have been had he pursued being the best rather than the richest. He believes he would have been a contender for the title, “greatest actor of his generation.” He concludes the monologue with the statement I quoted at the top of article.

In his famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost notes that “Two roads diverged in a wood” and proceeds to ruminate on what might have been had he taken a different road than the one he took. Two roads always diverge. And we will always consider what might have been had we taken the road other than the one we took. We’ll never know. For sure, we would have ended up in a different place. But would we have been happier? Would we have been more content?

I often think of what might had been had I made different choices. But I didn’t. And James didn’t either. For that matter, neither did Frost or Whittier or Marlon Brando or any of us. We made the choices we made. And what keeps us unhappy now is not the choices we made but the story we tell ourselves about those choices. How we would have been happier, richer, more content, famous, respected and admired had we only pursued a different road.

No matter which road we take, we will have cut ourselves off from a different life than the one we chose. But we can only have what we chose. We can never have in reality what we only imagine.

The question is not, “What might have been” but, rather, “What now?” What choices will define us now? What road will we take now from among the unlimited number of roads that are before us?

First and foremost, I’m a movie fan, but not of all movies. I noticed that there are certain movies I watch repeatedly because of what they teach me about living a life of meaning and purpose.