I’ve been thinking about all those “if only” expressions used to communicate regret or remorse. I’ve also heard a lot of “what ifs” expressed, indicating anxiety about the future. Both of those prevent us from firmly planning us in the present, which, I suggest, is the meaning of life. Living in the here and now, not in the past or future.
Once a year a childhood friend and I make a date to talk. In the early ‘80s our talk fests took place on landlines. AT&T had a monopoly back then charging around $20 a month for local calls and between $1.50–$5.00 a month for the telephone rental. And those telephones! Attached to a wall allowing no mobility for the user. A telephone call and a distracted mother provided the perfect opportunity for my toddler to crawl into the freezer.
It was the long-distance rates that terrified the wallet: over $.50 cents for the first minute and $.30 for each minute thereafter. I still hear the reproach and admonishment in my head from my father and former husband should the phone bill exceed its acceptable limit.
So, my Vermont friend and I restricted our conversations to once a year on a date that fell between our two birthdays (mine July, hers in September). In the ensuing 30-plus years, our annual conversations have transitioned from stationery to cordless landlines, and on to cell phones with a few FaceTime sessions.
I’m really dating myself with this retrospective of telephone technology (I’m even leaving out the fact we shared a party line with neighbors when I was a child and that my phone number used to be six digits).
But back to my most recent cell phone date with Andrea. Perhaps it was a year’s perspective, but I was struck by how many “if onlys” I heard during this conversation. “If only, I was married…” “If only I had children…” “If only I lived in a small town…” These are refrains I’ve heard from her for years.
They imply she is unhappy with her life, which other aspects of our conversation seem to negate. She is beautiful, smart, funny, and highly social. She has an interesting job as a development director for a small college. She lives in a precious bungalow with her two beloved west highland terriers. In her late 50s, she knows certain longings will probably not be fulfilled.
I changed tactics this year. Rather than adopting an empathetic listening stance, I tried the “Yes and…” approach. “Yes, you chose not to have children with men you deemed unfit for fatherhood, and do you really regret that decision?” “Yes, you live alone and come and go exactly as you please, serve on boards of organizations you care passionately about, and mentor younger women in your field.”
Maybe writing my book, Be Brave. Lose the Beige! Finding Your Sass After Sixty, has made me braver about what life does or does not have to offer. I want to share that feeling of empowerment with others. It’s liberating (and probably obnoxious in some cases).
I sympathize with disappointment. I hate being disappointed. But it is incumbent upon us to adapt. Aging is hard and scary. We, or people we adore, are going to have health scares. We will experience loss. Contending with formerly functioning body parts and figuring out our financial futures is tough. We must transform our “if onlys” to “yes… ands.”
I just hope after my diatribe, I’ll still have a date with my friend next summer.
Do you ever get a case of the “if onlys”? What do you wish you had accomplished in your life? What did you get to accomplish instead? When you really think about it, is your regret or your accomplishment more prevalent and worth exploration? Let us know by commenting.
Tags Finding Happiness