COOKISLANDS — What if I were born here? Have you ever asked yourself that question?
What if, through some quirk in fate, I remained everything I am, same heart, same lungs, same face, same brain, but I came into the world in this place instead of the place where I grew up?
Who would I be? How would I be different?
I found myself asking those very questions in this South Pacific tropical corner of the planet, where the water is turquoise, plants are lavender and gold, chickens race freely across the road and people smile as if they haven’t a thing to rush off to, which is most probably the case.
What if I had been born here?
Who would I be? Would the things I chase in my current life be the things I would have chased here? Would traffic still bother me? Would I still love jazz? Would I still feel the need to read three newspapers a day?
Would I be a better person — or worse?
Taking a long walk
This is the healthiest part of a faraway vacation. Also the scariest. For immersing yourself in another world makes you think about where you are.
And that leads you to who you are.
Will you like what you hear?
Here in the Cooks, on the island of Rarotonga, I began my days with a long walk. I do not do that at home. The walk enabled me to see large insects flying across my path, to hear roosters hollering, to feel the breeze off the water. It gave me a deep appreciation for nature, slowed me down, put me in perspective. I would be lying if I said I got that at home.
What if every day began this way?
How would I be different?
Here in the Cooks, I engaged in conversations with local merchants who built roadside stands in the rear of their yards. One woman, in the process of selling me a T-shirt, spent several minutes tending to a granddaughter who was crying and tugging at her skirt and spent several more minutes complaining about the large cars that were appearing on the island.
I smiled and nodded. I would not have done so back home. I would have pointed to my watch and made a quick escape.
What if I lived here? Would I move more slowly?
Here in the Cooks, I never saw a TV or newspaper — and did not miss it. At home, I cannot go a day without these addictions. Could it be I don’t really need them?
What if I grew up here?
Watching for coconuts
Scientists say a certain part of our personalities is predetermined — DNA, biology, genetic blueprint, inherited traits. But few deny that environment is a critical molding factor.
Which makes who we are — or, rather, who we turn out to be — such an accident of geography that it can make you crazy.
Still, if you find yourself slogging away at a job that doesn’t mean much to you, freezing in a climate you’ve always hated, racing to keep up a pace that leaves you weary, or weary of a pace that leaves you bored, it is worth asking yourself how much where you are is affecting who you are.
And would you be a better person in a different place?
I would like to have met my island version. I would hope he would be more gentle in his speech, more appreciative of the moon and stars, more accepting of the fact that the world may move faster in places like New York or L.A. but that running behind it is not a black mark.
Yes, I know, the challenge is to become all these things in my current world. Nobly said. Not so easily done. The TV blasts. People gossip. Traffic snarls.
Here, biking to a hidden waterfall, seeing signs that read “Watch for falling coconuts,” gazing at schoolchildren playing soccer on a grass field just a few feet from the bluest water you have ever imagined, you cannot help but wonder: What if my mother and father had stopped here, had brought me into the world in this place, had raised me under their same loving wings but in the shadow of palm trees instead of apartment buildings?
Would I be writing this now?
Even more curious — would I care?
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).