I’m still thinking about last week’s New Yorker essay by Joshua Rothman on the “uncanny allure of our unlived lives.” Reviewing Andrew H. Miller’s On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of our Unled Lives, Rothman relates his own almost-career as a college-aged tech founder in the dot com era. When that bubble burst, Rothman recounts being on his way to pay his tuition bill when he struck up a conversation with a girl on an elevator. When she happened to step onto his elevator for a second time, they continued their conversation.

We started dating, then went to graduate school in English together. We got married, I became a journalist, and we had a son. I now have a life, a world, a story. I’m me, not him — whoever he might have turned out to be.

Unlike Achilles, who was fated to fight and die at Troy, we moderns who deny fate are yet fated to speculate about what might have been with our other lives. (Rothman: “Achilles didn’t have to wonder if he should have been pre-med or pre-law …”) Echoing Hamilton, Rothman believes the stakes are pretty high: “Given just a single shot at existence, we owe it to ourselves to hit the mark; we must not just survive but thrive.”

All of which brings me to a confidential question I’d like to pose, just between you and me, if that’s okay (I would hate for this to get out): Am I the only one who thinks about that Other Me, living that Other Life, the one that might be more fulfilling and less stressful than this present one? That life the writer Hilary Mantel refers to as an unfinished short story filed away “in a drawer of your consciousness”? I’m not sure there is an easy vocation during a pandemic. I mourn the lonely and isolated lives of so many senior adults, and I am in awe of young parents trying to maintain work and school and life and sanity right now (not to mention stretching their WiFi across all those devices). Still, I worry about the toll the pandemic is taking on my profession, and what some have predicted as a “coming pastoral crash.”

I sometimes wonder what might have happened had I chosen to be a professor instead of a pastor. I imagine myself wearing the iconic tweed blazer, an opened volume of Karl Barth on my lap, perhaps a pipe in my mouth, delightfully musing on the mysteries of the gospel (and somewhere, a real theology professor, grading endless essays, laughs out loud). Still, I can’t help but wonder what that Other Me would be doing right now.

Yet I take comfort that mine is not the first generation of pastors to daydream about an easier way to make a living. In her book The Pastor as Moral Guide, Rebekah Miles speaks honestly and helpfully about something she calls the “apostolic succession of reluctance.” Take the early church father Gregory Nazianzen, for instance, who briefly experimented with two lives. When he was a newly ordained pastor, he began to feel the call to “guide and govern souls” in that perilous era was “too high” and too costly. Soon after his ordination at Christmastime, he actually ran away for a few months, all the while his congregants were writing him letters urging him to come back.

When Gregory finally returned at Easter, these same congregants were so angry they boycotted church and would not let him near their homes. So, during Eastertide 362, Gregory wrote a letter explaining himself. He told them how unqualified he had felt to pastor and how risky it was if he led them poorly. He compared the risk to those sailors who “cross the wide oceans and constantly contend with winds and waves,” while he preferred to “stay ashore and plow a short but pleasant furrow, saluting at a respectful distance” those brave sailors at sea. In the end, however, he feared disobeying God to failing as a pastor, and returned, trusting the one who is a “Shepherd to shepherds and a Guide to guides.”

While it is an open question as to whether my current life more closely resembles the swashbuckling sailor or the tranquil farmer, what is true is that I regularly daydream about an even more tranquil life. The Sailor Me will probably always romanticize the Farmer Me I could have been, but the Farmer Me would surely miss out on the ocean spray of the high seas of local church ministry. And all that speculation is wasted energy.

May all of us, whatever lives we’ve led, be granted the retrospective grace of the psalmist who declares that the “boundary lines” of his life have fallen in “pleasant places” and that God has surely granted him “a delightful inheritance” (16:6). The Good Shepherd knows that this particular sheep, the one named Larry (the one he still calls by name), would have clearly lacked the sense to negotiate a better vocational path than the one I’ve currently traveled. The Good Shepherd has led me through not only the desperation of dark valleys but the consistent refreshment of green pastures and still waters. He has “hemmed me in” (139:5), in the best sense of the word. After all, In the end, there has only really been One Me, This Me, graciously fenced in by a God who loves to shepherd even reluctant shepherds.