When you agree to teach English in a foreign country, it’s usually implied that you know English. What I speak is a mixture of fast-paced-Jersey-bred mumbling along with a few choice words taken from Urban Dictionary. Most English speakers have trouble understanding me.
Although most of my time teaching 6th grade Spanish children has been spent trying to get them to think I’m cool enough to know all the lyrics to an Ariana Grande song (I don’t), I’ve also had to study up on my English grammar.
During one particular class where I spent an hour explaining the first conditional tense versus the second (to no avail), I realized the philosophical analogy of this basic grammar concept.
For those of you who slept through 4th grade English, the first conditional and the second are relatively simple ideas. (Forget about the third conditional, it’s just baffling.)
1st: If I have money, I will never intern without pay again.
2nd: If I had money, I would never intern without pay again.
Although both of these statements are highly unlikely in real world, they are very straightforward in the grammar world. First conditional implies a probability in the future whereas second entails a theory. In this breakneck speed of the 21st century, most people live by the first conditional rule. If I quit my job, if I move cities, if I meet a (semi) decent person on Tinder, then Y will happen. Basic cause and effect drives our daily lives and this thought process makes the world (or at least capitalism) go round. First conditional thought is a socially acceptable, if not always healthy, way to live.
And what happens to those stuck in the second conditional? Here’s where life gets tricky. If I had studied more in college, if my parents hadn’t gotten divorced, if I hadn’t eaten that whole jar of Nutella, if I hadn’t made all those mistakes, maybe I’d be in a different place than where I am now. This constant living in the “what would have happened if” is torturous for the mind and soul. You start to question everything you’ve ever done and where you are today.
I think about my favorite book, the one I reread at different points in my life because each time I realize something I hadn’t noticed before. Milan Kundera says in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.”
Are we bound to live mistake after mistake without ever improving?
I have spent my whole life trying to abide by the rules of the first conditional that I didn’t even see that hole of quick sand masquerading as intact dirt known as the second conditional in the jungle of life. And yet I fell through.
I am constantly at war with my mind wondering what would have happened if I had made different choices in my life. If I had stayed in LA/Boston/NYC, where would I be now? If I hadn’t left the film industry, if I chose a different major in college, if I had different friends, if I took more/less risks, if I had a different childhood, how would my life be different?
Then everything starts to open up, like the time I cut my foot on a huge piece of glass at a nightclub and had to get stitches because nothing could stop the effusion of blood. Everything just pours out. I start to question If I had been a different person, been more social, more driven, kinder, more mentally stable, then would i be happier now? This vicious cycle has no end.
A much as I try to reject the second conditional, speak in the definitive present or future tense, I can’t seem to get this dancing reel of ‘ifs’ and ‘woulds’ out of my mind. Oh, English grammar, I’d have one less problem without you.