Some of the hardest things for me to let go of in my life have been the “if onlys!” That one statement, “if only,” contains all the disappointments of our lives.
- If only I had not said or done this or that.
- If only I had been brave enough or confident enough to say or do this or that.
- If only I had gotten that job, left that job, gone to school, left school, changed my major.
- If only I had known before I got married, or before I had children, or before I got divorced.
- If only I had ended that relationship, if only I had found the courage to start that relationship.
- If only I had known, beforehand, I would have done things differently.
- If only I had done it differently when I did know.
- If only I had loved less, or loved more deeply, showed my emotions more, or hid them better.
- If only he or she had done this or that then everything would be different, everything would be okay.
I thought about this last night when I was sitting with a group of friends, outside on a lovely evening, talking about the disappointments and the challenges in our lives, reviewing all the things we thought we’d be doing at this age, if only.
None of us planned on being middle-aged and living alone. None of us planned to be questioning our futures at this point; personally, professionally, or financially. We had planned lives with partners who were no longer at the table with us. We had responsibly spent money we could have used on lavish vacations on new windows and insulation for homes we no longer live in. We had stashed money into 401ks for retirements we know now we will never see because we’ve since had to use that money during unexpected hard times. We’ve survived heartbreak, and loss and illnesses and challenges we never, ever saw coming! We know, and we feel, so deeply, that all those things could have all been avoided, if only.
Yet, those if onlys aren’t real. They were real for a very brief time, for a brief moment of possibility, and then like the minute it took to read this sentence they were gone forever. Now, just like fairy tales and Santa Claus, those old if onlys can only continue to exist because we choose to believe in them. They were part of our dreams. They were part of our lives that never really happened. We make them real when we choose to dwell on them. We choose to hang onto them. We refuse to get on with our lives because we were promised something different! We were promised the fairy tale. The if onlys are holding us back. They are dragging us down. We’ve got to let go of them or they will pull us under.
There’s an old Japanese proverb that I love: “fall down seven times, get up eight.” That’s right, get up! The proverb does not say, fall down and lay there saying “if only I hadn’t fallen, this isn’t my fault, I wasn’t supposed to fall!” The principle is the same even if you were pushed down. Just get up, as many times as it takes, just get up again! It may not have been your choice to be down there on the ground but what you are going to do next is completely in your hands!
There’s also another choice, we can reframe our if onlys. If we can look at them differently, we might even learn to be grateful for them.
If all of those things hadn’t happened the way they did, we may not have been where we were right at that moment last night. We may not have been that group of friends, in that place, enjoying that music together. We might have never found the friends and lovers in our lives right now. Our paths may not have ever crossed, if only. We may have never met. We may have never connected. We might have just been those people who pass each other in the grocery store and never even make eye contact, never even say hello.
That would have been a loss. I’m glad I haven’t missed out on all the amazing, unexpected people in my life. I am grateful for the love. I am grateful for the joy. I am even grateful for the pain. I’m grateful for all the unbelievable blessings and challenges. I’m grateful for the things that I never would have expected, if only all those others things had worked out the way I had planned. Everything would have been different and yet I find it hard to believe that any of it would have better than it is right now, if only.