If Only

Baker asked, “What in your past has caused you to have the “if onlys”? “If only” I had stopped ___________________________ years ago. “If only” __________________________ hadn’t left me. ”  This is a big question for me.  “If only” is one of top things on the list of dangerous habits I’ve worked to overcome.  I can recall all the ways I abused this phrase, to my detriment.  Then, I can categorize them.  The most troublesome category for me was the “if onlys” that were always beyond my control.  I was basically bemoaning fate.  I was angry at God, the universe, and everyone, for my situation.  I blamed everyone but me.  Here they are.

1. If only my parents gave me more freedom, I would be more normal and would have experiences like normal kids have.
2. If only I wasn’t from a conservative rural community, I would have had normal experiences like normal people have.

There really wasn’t much I could have done to change those two facts of life.  The fact is I am from a small, conservative family in a small, conservative community.  I spent decades feeling sorry for myself for those facts.  I used them as an excuse for jealousy and pettiness.  I used them as an excuse to cheat, telling myself life had been unfair to me and that I was simply seeking some sort of justice.  I used them as an excuse for overindulgence, in alcohol, porn, and sex, telling myself, incorrectly, everyone else was doing it and that I had to keep up.  I used them as an excuse for taking ridiculous risks, with health, heart, and reputation, again telling myself, incorrectly, that I had to catch up with everyone else.

In retrospect, I did have some healthier options for gaining some control in regard to those facts.  I could not have changed them.  But, I could have, and should have, changed my view of them.  I should have put them into perspective.  So, I was eighteen years behind college peers in regard to some social and worldly experiences.  So, what?  It’s not a competition.  I thought it was.  It’s not.  I think I competed on those inappropriate comparisons, in an attempt to like myself, because I did not feel confident competing in healthy ways, such as sports. Why not compete on academic or artistic pursuits?  Because, I had gotten it into my head that academic or artistic success was antithetical to social success.  It’s not.  But, as a young boy, I thought it was.

In fact, social success is ultimately what I really wanted, what I really thought would make me feel good.  Why did social success become the end all, be all for me?  I did a little scan of literature on this question.  It seems pursuit of social success is rather normal. I talked with TL about this question.  We suspect I became obsessed with the pursuit of social success because I was socially isolated.  In short, the combination of a controlling mother and some effects of being a minority brought me some social isolation.  I perpetuated the isolation in college by choosing not to have a roommate and choosing to live in a dorm full of people who were absolutely nothing like me.

In any case, I should have chosen a healthier view of my conservative upbringing.  I should have not wasted time and energy viewing it as a cause for competition and comparison.  Also, at age forty-six, and more so with each passing day, those original eighteen years of my life become smaller and smaller in relation to who I am now and what I’ve done since.

The next “if only” that comes to mind is also something that could be less troublesome if I had simply chosen not to obsess on it.  Directly related to the pursuit of social success, I used to say to myself:  “If only girls liked me more, I would be happier.”  In retrospect, girls liked me well enough, particularly on the rare occasions when I relaxed and didn’t worry about it.  But, I spent disproportionate amounts of time and energy worrying about this issue.  And, whatever good things came my way, I wrongly told myself they were not good enough.

Then, there’s an “if only” that appeared to be beyond my control, but over which I actually had much more control than I thought:  “If only God had made me bigger, faster, and stronger, I would be more successful.”  As a child, I thought I could not affect those variables.  I believe that my mother, in an unsuccessful attempt to make me feel better, reinforced the idea that those  things were immutable, constantly telling me they were unimportant and that everyone was simply different.  Later in life, I learned that I could improve my body if I tried.  But, I would have been happier and more successful had I learned that in elementary school rather than in college.

Finally, there are the “if onlys” that were entirely within my control.  I made the decision I thought was right at the time, based on the information I had at the time.  I took a risk, or not. And, now those decision points are firmly anchored in the past.  They are:

1. If only I hadn’t dated S for nearly four years, I would have had more interesting experiences in college.
2. If only I had gone to law school, I would now have a profession.
3. If only I had joined the military as a young man, I would now have more career options.

Occasionally, I am tempted to get upset about those past decisions.  But, it’s relatively easy to talk myself down, reminding myself that those things are in the past, and that I can only affect things in the present and the future.

In sum, the “if onlys” that led me to justify cheating and lying were essentially my anger at the circumstances of my birth family.  I have stopped being angry about those things.  But, it took me decades to get there, and I almost lost everything along the way, by choosing irrational anger over pragmatism, hope, hard work, and perspective.

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One thought on “If Only

  1. So B tells me often to ask MC for clarification when I need it, rather than to let questions linger and fester. Sometimes, this happens when I read what MC has written. I’m not sure if this is helpful or not, but MC and I thought it might be worth showing this process a bit more here. So, here it goes.

    Let me explain some background into why I am seeking clarification. In a few years, we will likely have reached the limit of MC’s current career and go “home.” This will involve a major mid-life career change for MC. One he has fear about. When we talk about these fears adult-to-adult, it is something we can work through. Sometimes, however, MC resorts to the child (talking in the terms B has given us here) and will declare that he will have to get a job bagging groceries or we will have to live in the furthest from home place I will allow in order to find something within in his field or he should’ve gone to law school (instead of deferring his admission and ultimately deciding to not go) so he could just hang out a shingle wherever we wanted or he should’ve joined the military (instead of deciding at the last moment to not sign on the dotted line to start OCS just after finishing his Masters degree) to have a bigger pension and more options after. I’ve heard this many times over the years, along with others. I know this is his fear talking, but also it strikes me as self-pity, negativity, the grass is always greener thinking too.

    So, when I saw this:

    “2. If only I had gone to law school, I would now have a profession.
    3. If only I had joined the military as a young man, I would now have more career options.”

    My fear of his self-pity and negative thinking was brought to the surface. So, I asked him for clarification on these points. Is this him being negative in the present? Is this self-pity in the present?

    In the past, he would have just edited the above post to include his response. But, we are including them in this comment instead, wondering if seeing the clarification process may be of some value to others?

    Here is his response:

    “Let me be clear. I am not losing the struggle with these questions. I feel I have made considerable progress on not letting these questions drag me down.

    More importantly, I also understand that some of the problem with these questions is my own subjective, emotional formulation of them. For example, I probably have a lot more potential for my second career than I sometimes fear. I continue to learn to focus on the positive, not the negative.”

    Like

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