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Choice story: (3) when it is too late to stop the train

January 2016

In the film Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994), Charles (played by Hugh Grant) is about to marry Henrietta.

During the ceremony, the priest asks if anyone is aware of any obstacle to the marriage. Unusually, someone stands up. He is Charles’s brother. As he is deaf and dumb, he asks Charles to translate aloud what he says in sign language. So, Charles finds itself saying, on behalf of his brother, that this marriage is not appropriate and that he (Charles) loves someone else. Asked by the priest to confirm, Charles does. He gets punched by Henrietta and this is the end of this marriage.

Charles had accepted to marry Henrietta because she had insisted and because he thought he had anyway no other exciting perspective. However, just before the wedding, he had learned that Carrie, the woman he loves, had just divorced from her husband and was now free. During the ceremony, Charles was torn apart; he clearly felt he was not going to marry the right person but it seemed too late to stop the wedding process; so, he would have probably not put such an end to it. His brother acted like a sort of last minute angel, helping him to regain clarity in himself and thus protecting him from an inadequate choice.

In real life, it seems that such angels do not appear so frequently, though such situations are not rare. In their research on key choices in life 1, Denis Bourgeois and Phil Dixon gathered several stories of cases that they termed “when it is too late to stop the train”. Here are two of them.

Fabienne was 25 when she got married. One week before the wedding, she said to her sister: “I’m making a mistake”. Nevertheless, she went on. A few days after the wedding, she could not walk any longer. She was admitted in a hospital. Diagnosis: MS. Since then, she has been moving with a wheel-chair for she can only walk a few steps without it. The marriage actually lasted only a few months.

“I did not stop everything just before the wedding for a number of reasons: my parents had already invested serious money in the wedding, I did not want to cause pain to my husband’s mother with whom I had a very warm relationship and who was dying from a cancer. But, finally, even without all this, I don’t know if I would have had the courage of hurting my husband. However, my intuition was right: the marriage did not last.”

(see some more details in “Key choices in life: is there such a thing as a wrong choice”)

Bernard was 35 when he launched a business with his wife and a partner company. Approximately two months before the opening, he felt some serious doubts about the robustness of their marketing plan. He spoke a little bit of this with his wife but they nevertheless went on; the business was launched and never really took off; it came to an end two years later; the marketing plan was indeed flawed.

“I probably realized too late that we were not going to sell our product as easily as we expected. A conversation with someone in the same business sparked this. But I was confused. If we stopped at that stage, or even if we delayed the launching for several months, money had already been invested, we were committed to pay a rent for our premises anyway since the lease was already signed. Moreover what would our partners think of us: irresolute, wavering ? And how would we make a living in the next months if we did not start ? We had some savings but no deep pockets...So there were many unpleasant disadvantages to stop the launching process which was on track. They all came down to fears, actually. So, I did talk about my doubts with my wife but I was probably not very convincing and we went on…”

The common thread to these stories is a dilemma:

  • on the one hand, a voice inside the person tells him/her that the choice that has been made and is being implemented is not the right one.

  • on the other hand, stopping the train would be costly, in terms both of money and relationships. Financially, some money, sometimes serious money, has already been invested or has been promised but this is probably not the main obstacle. In all cases, stopping the train would upset or hurt a number of people and it is never comfortable. Moreover, the risk is that these people judge the hero of the story badly, as irresolute or even coward.

Finally, in all the instances that were collected, the train, running full speed, was not stopped and, actually, the choice proved “wrong” in terms of their expected outcomes (see more on this in “is there such a thing as a wrong choice ?” ).

Very often, the words “courage” or “fear” came in these conversations. These people felt they were lacking courage; paradoxically, it takes courage to publicly acknowledge one’s own mistakes and weaknesses.

Now, two questions remain open:

1. Was it too late to stop the train or, did it simply seem too late to stop the train ? After all, the example of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” shows that one can stop the train even at the very last minute.

In Fabienne’s view, it seems that she decided that the disadvantages of stopping exceeded the advantages. “In the last days before the wedding, I knew I was making a mistake but I chose to make it. I did not know the consequences that would come out of it but they also got me to make all this psychological and spiritual work. I do not regret anything. I never told to myself: “if I had not got married, what would have happened etc…”. Otherwise one is anchored in the past, in the negative”.

On this, Bernard says: “it was probably possible to stop, or to delay the launch but, at that time I did not have the courage nor the competence to lead this. And we’ll never know what the result would have been anyway”.

2. How was it that those warnings came so late and therefore got these persons to face a dilemma ? None of the interviewees was able to fully answer. They felt that they may have missed other signals earlier in the process but may not have paid attention to them. However the full meaning of these ventures probably remained to be discovered.

  1. 1  The choice stories that are given here have been collected in interviews that were part of Denis Bourgeois's and Phil Dixon's research on key choices in life. Other stories are or will be posted in this site as well as an on-going series of papers, partly based on those stories; The first of them is on-line and gives details about the research itself.   

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