If only

By Joanne Sandstrom



Joanne Sandstrom
Peg Skorpinski photo

13 March 2002 | “If only” — the phrase should be struck from the lexicon. It focuses on a past that cannot be changed. With that focus, it sucks energy from the present and casts shadows on the future.

If only I hadn’t dropped out of high school, I wouldn’t be stuck in this dead-end job. If only I’d had an abortion, I wouldn’t be a single mother. If only I hadn’t had an abortion, I wouldn’t have this load of guilt. If only mother had left the house earlier, she wouldn’t have been in that fatal accident on I-5. If only The Regents hadn’t forced out a more than competent treasurer to make room for an FOB (friend of Bush), the University wouldn’t be involved in the Enron debacle.

“If only” focuses on a past incident that has led to an undesirable present. No native-born American regrets not having been born in a Cairo slum. No tall, white, male CEO says to himself, “If only I’d been born short, black and female.” “If only” comes into play only when the present is not as we would wish.

“If only” assumes that one past incident has forever tarnished the present. Since the past incident can’t be changed, the present reality will forever be as it is now.

Indeed, the past is prologue. It’s also indeed immutable. Past events certainly led to present realities, and we can do nothing to change those events. The form of today’s reality, however, isn’t fixed. Tragedy, comedy, soap operas — we can play the present as we choose, react to the past as we choose. We are not stuck with simply reciting a script. By our performance, we can deepen the meaning of the play — or mock it, defy it, make lemonade of it, if those seem better courses. But not if we focus on “if only.” The past is done. “Iffing” won’t change the past. Nor will it improve the present.

If only the Palestinians hadn’t done that. If only the Israelis had done this. We’d have peace in the Middle East. They didn’t. We don’t. Now — how do we shape the rest of the play?


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