“I Coulda Been a Contender”



You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. ~Terry, played by Marlon Brando, in On the Waterfront

I met a friend of mine in the library the other day and we chatted for a moment. She’s older than I am and mentioned that many of her friends have been retired for several years but she’s had to keep working. She joked, “I think there was some mistake. I think I was meant to be rich!” We shared a chuckle.

But then later on when I got home, I started thinking…. It reminded me of Marlon Brando’s character’s quote in On the Waterfront: “I coulda been a contender.”

This movie quote has been famous for the past 62 years (and will probably continue to be famous for some time to come) because it resonates so profoundly with each one of us. It’s the very unusual person who has not, at some moment in their life, wondered what their life would have been like “if only…”, leaving them with a nagging feeling that their life might be “less than” in some way.

When you think through this thought you’ll see how it makes no sense.

This quote assumes that everything in our life following that “if only…” moment would have stayed exactly the same as we remember it, only now we’d have a leg up because we would have made a different choice in that moment.

But this is not necessarily true.

Our different choice would have opened the door (or close it) for different events to happen (or not happen). We have no way of knowing what those events that did or did not happen would have been! They could have had an even more devastating effect than what we actually experienced. And they could have been damaging not only for us, but for others who weren’t harmed with our original choice.


You may argue that the flip side could also be true: it could have turned out better–for us and for others–just as we imagine in our perfectly constructed “if only…” scenario.

But then, there’s the law of unintended consequences….

By living your actual life, you don’t know how many people may be better off because you’ve lived (think of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life). Perhaps, the full benefit of your life may not be fully realized for several generations (think of all the artists who were ridiculed during their lives yet now, posthumously, are celebrated as geniuses).

We can go on and on with “our lives could have been better, but then they could have been worse”, which is precisely the point that makes all this supposing ridiculous. We’ll never know for sure if the choice we didn’t make–the road we didn’t travel, as Robert Frost muses about in his poem of the same name–if it really would have been the better choice.

All we can do is live this life right now in this moment, making the best choices that we can and leave all the supposings and if onlys to the gods to sort out!

Your Friend and Pep Pal,



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