The Empty Promise of If Only

For the first few years after our 13 year old daughter died, I quite naturally thought of  “how old she would have been if only she had lived.” Then, one year, I realized how pointless this was. It was not only a waste of my emotional energy, it was a drain on living the life that I had before me. It was a completely hopeless exercise, masquerading as honoring her memory, but really only offering an empty promise of non-existent possibilities.

While it obviously would be wonderful to still have her here, she is gone. I can remember her fondly and look forward to seeing her when all things are made new, but I can’t make any relevant choices about life based on “if only.” I can build on my experiences of knowing her and losing her, hopefully having grown wiser and more tenderhearted. But I can’t build on experiences that are not going to happen.

And I shouldn’t ask anyone else to, either. If I choose to wander off into the lifeless fantasy of “if only,” what can anyone do to comfort me? It is a barren place, a quick sand of despair, void of water or branches to hold out to the person who goes there. The only real help is to show the person that they don’t have to reside in that self-induced, imaginary realm.

As I write this, it is 11 years since our daughter died. All of her “younger” siblings are adults. Some are in college and we are in the habit of discussing much of the propaganda that passes for curriculum in the core courses required for the “well-rounded” student. Today, we were talking about the glorification of cultures from the past, and the claims of the need for restitution for mistakes made in past generations. It struck me that much of this way of thinking is also based on someone’s “if only” scenarios. “If only” the Europeans had not settled in the Americas. “If only” there hadn’t been slavery. “If only” we had the same standards and morals of days gone by. “If only” everyone never made mistakes or was dishonest.

It’s kind of odd (or hypocritical?) that often the same crowd that wants to adjust our current reality to their version of “if only,” does so based on what “would have” been passed down from one generation to the next (land, customs, power). But then they claim that it is not “right” for individuals to pass on advantage or values to their families now. Of course, they are ready to retort, what people have now was “unfairly” gained. Or people just can’t be trusted “anymore” to be free and make their own choices. I dare say, if they would sift through history honestly, they would be hard pressed to find any time or culture, large or small, of any color or creed, when there was not conflict. Where in time do we start to make things as “good” as they would have been “if only” people had done what was right?

Another tenet of the “if only” group is that culture is basically static. They pick some section of time that suits them, and take its approved (by them) cultural practices and label them “holy.” This denies the historical record of constant influences from one culture to another. Whether it be via trade or conquest, people all over the world have been exchanging ideas for eons. Even within a culture, there is enough change from one generation to the next to result in comedies of miscommunication. The older generation can be tempted to say “if only” it were the good old days; and the younger folks lament “if only” we had been in charge back then. It seems that the only real constant is the arrogance of human nature.

So what can or should be done about the whole troublesome human history? Common sense suggests that only if at least one of the parties directly involved in a questionable handling of affairs is alive, should any attempt at reparation be made. The evidence strongly suggests that not only does interference beyond that inhibit prosperity for all involved, there is no logical way to go about it. And is it understood that a lot of today’s problems stem from people in the past trying to control behavior through legal means? These methods stimulate crime and atrocity. Those who receive what they did not work for do not manage it nearly as wisely as those who had to struggle some in the process. If those who are using their own resources are restricted in their endeavors and penalized for prosperity, they reduce their efforts.

With freedom from the busybodies rearranging everyone’s lives, people tend to work harder and all of society benefits. It doesn’t have to be equal for it to be good for everyone. If nearly everyone has better food, cheaper clothing, faster communication, and easier transportation than anyone did 100 years ago, cries of poverty, in the true sense of the word, are hardly believable. Some will try to say that “better” is relative, and society has lost some “purity” or “simplicity,” but living has never been simple. It is too easy to admire the past without realizing how much you gain from modern living.

Some day, there may be a known cure for cancer. If I live to see it, I will not start a crusade to sue the doctors who practiced their medicine on our daughter. There were the limits of knowledge of the day. I probably won’t even sue the government that basically threatened to take our child from us if we didn’t follow “standard treatment,” even though that smacks of slavery. I will merely proceed with the knowledge and opportunities of the day at hand. Spending my energy on “if only’s” sucks the life out of living life now.

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