Today I want to talk about one of the most dangerous phrases in the English language. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? I assure you that the phrase itself is indeed very powerful, and is also incredibly common. It is a phrase as old as time, and has been uttered by kings and peasants, rich and poor, young and old, the educated and the ignorant, even the wise and the foolish. It is a phrase that does not discriminate against any measurable external trait, but rather is a strong indicator of the internal human condition. It is the phrase, “if only”.
You’ve heard it before, and may have even said it to yourself a time or two.
“If only I was smarter, or taller, or better looking.
If only I had more money, or more friends.
If only she still loved me.
If only I paid more attention in class.
If only he didn’t mock me.
If only they had let me into their club.”
This phrase is dangerous not because of anything it conveys, but rather because of the mindset it exposes. It is such a seemingly harmless phrase, yet it expresses so much of the underlying internal condition. And as with all habits, if left unattended, it will change our character and will permanently impact the way we approach the world. Several negative ramifications we should be wary of:
WE DWELL IN THE PAST
If we look carefully, the words immediately following the “if only” are almost always anchored in the past. If only someone hadn’t wronged you, if only you had a better teammate, or if only you had chosen differently. Even the future sounding cues are really anchored in the past! If only she would take more initiative, if only he would be more kind. While those may sound forward looking, they aren’t! If only she took more initiative implies that she didn’t in the past!
The down side of dwelling in the past is that it’s just that - the past. We cannot move life forward when we have our gaze fixed on the past. Life is designed to be forward moving. We are meant to grow, to progress. It’s wired into the very fabric of our being! Every living thing is designed to move forward. The circle of life doesn’t go backwards! It is ever forward moving, and though it is cyclic, it does not run in the reverse direction.
You cannot move forward if you are fixated on the past.
WE FOCUS ON THE NEGATIVE
If only statements are generally negative. They point towards something that we wish didn’t happen, some event that we wish had gone differently, some regrettable circumstance that may have been thrust upon us. Human nature already fixates on the negative. A single traumatic event is often enough to have us spending a lifetime avoiding that same situation again.
This is a survival instinct that helped humanity tens of thousands of years ago cope with its environment. While modern advancements in research, in categorization, and in education have allowed us to understand much of our planet, this was not always so. Our ancestors could not point their smartphone camera at some plant and have Google tell you type of plant it is along with nutritional information, whether it has any medicinal properties, and how to pair it with other ingredients to turn it into an amazing salad. No, mankind of old learned things the hard way and avoided things it did not know; especially if it had a negative or painful experience.
We no longer live in that world, and yet our instinct of emphasis on traumatic events still remains. Journalists capitalize on this fact. The news is centered on the dramatic, the traumatic, and the negative. We don’t need more negativity; in fact, we need much more of the opposite. The world is not as bad as it seems, and things are getting much better! But we are not wired to see that, and so must fight against things that focus our attention on the negative.
WE DON’T TAKE RESPONSIBILITY
If only such and such a thing happened, then the result would have been much better. If only my team was better, then we would have won. If only mom cooked better, then I would have healthier eating habits.
These statements all push the burden of responsibility off of ourselves; we shift the blame to the thing that didn’t happen instead of acknowledging our own culpability in the matter. It is no longer our fault! If the other person had done better, or if the referee had not singled me out, or if she didn’t have it out for me from day one, then things would have been different and I would have had a more desirable outcome.
My sons, do not believe those lies. Do not focus on the negative events of the past, placing blame and judgement on others. Rather set your mind on the future; look forward for the next things that will come, and be hopeful for that future! Yes, there may be pain and suffering, but there will also be joy! Laughter! Beauty, love, romance, and new shared experiences! These are what we live for and look forward to. I pray you fix your eyes on those things and not the failings of the past. Acknowledge the past, take responsibility, learn from your mistakes, then move on, move forward.
I love you boys, and am so proud and happy to be able to move life forward with you!