If Only

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On the day Thomas Carlyle’s wife was buried it poured down rain.

In April 1866, the Scottish writer and a group of mourners tramped through the mud to the cemetery where Jane was laid to rest.  They had been married for 40 years.  Then he returned to his home, feeling desperately alone. 

The Carlyles’ relationship had been shaped by his relentless drive to become a world famous historian and essayist. 

He needed his space.  He needed quiet.  One of Jane’s “household duties” had been to try to squelch the barking of dogs and crowing of roosters in the neighborhood so he could focus.

What Carlyle had failed to notice was his wife’s yearning for his attention, especially as she became increasingly frail.    

Sitting in the chair near her now-empty bed, he noticed her diary.  Jane had also been gifted with the pen.  Although none of her works were published during her lifetime, she is now celebrated as one of the great letter writers of the Victorian Age.

On one of the last pages in her diary, Carlyle read this single sentence: “Yesterday he spent an hour with me and it was like heaven; I love him so.”  It began to dawn on him that in the midst of his never-ending preoccupation with work, he had become blind to how much she cared for him.  Then he read these words: “I have listened all day to hear his steps in the hall, but now it is late and I guess he won’t come today.”

A few hours later Carlyle’s friends found him kneeling beside Jane’s grave, sobbing and covered with mud.  “If only I had known,” he cried.  “If only I had known.”

If only are two of the most painful words in the English language. 

Once you begin a sentence with if only, you have plunged into a time warp of regret.  

If only I had been humble and stayed quiet, I wouldn’t have made such a fool of myself at that meeting.
If only I hadn’t been so harsh with my kids, we might actually have a relationship today.
If only I had never picked up that first cigarette, I wouldn’t be trapped by this horrible habit.
If only I had walked away the first time he hit me, I could have salvaged my sense of self-worth.
If only I had made that basket, I wouldn’t have to live forever as the reason we lost the championship.
If only I had saved a few dollars every week, I would be looking at such a bleak retirement.
If only I hadn’t cared so much about my list of things to do, I wouldn’t feel so alone today.

Psychologist Les Parrot points out that if only statements are deadly because they force us to live in a place where we no longer have the opportunity to change our lives:  the past. 

Living anxiously in the past yields regret.  Living anxiously in the future generates worry.  While it’s true that God exists in all dimensions of time and space simultaneously – past, present, and future – there’s only one moment in which we can relate to God directly. 

That would be this moment. 

Every if only is powered by a pair of lies.  The first is that life would somehow be simple and easy and beautiful if only the past were different.  Just as worriers tend to catastrophize tomorrow – “I bet something awful is going to happen” – people consumed by regret tend to romanticize yesterday: “If only I had just done thus and so, right now I wouldn’t have a problem in the world.”

That, of course, is absurd.  It’s more accurate to say we’d simply be juggling a different set of problems. 

The second lie is that we’re trapped – locked up in the prisons of our past actions. 

But we actually have great power.  That power is embodied in our next play. 

It’s healthy to look back and admit that other paths would have been wiser.  But if you’re reading these words, you haven’t yet reached the final pages of your story.  How will you pray and work and study and serve and open your heart to others from this moment on

To quote once again the apostle Paul in II Corinthians 6:2: “Now is the time of God’s salvation, now is the day of salvation.”

By God’s grace, if and only don’t have to be the last two words that are spoken over your life.