Today's Inspirational Story
Two Words That Change Everything
Sure, you've got regrets. But you can move on if you apply this magic phrase.
By Arthur Gordon
Nothing in life is more exciting and rewarding than the sudden flash of insight that leaves you a changed person, not only changed but changed for the better. Such moments are rare, certainly, but they come to all of us. Sometimes from a book, a sermon, a line of poetry. Sometimes from a friend.
That wintry afternoon in Manhattan, waiting in the little French restaurant, I was feeling frustrated and depressed. Because of several miscalculations on my part, a project of considerable importance in my life had fallen through. Even the prospect of seeing a dear friend (the Old Man, as I privately and affectionately thought of him) failed to cheer me as it usually did. I sat there frowning at the checkered tablecloth, chewing the bitter cud of hindsight.
He came across the street, finally, muffled in his ancient overcoat, shapeless felt hat pulled down over his bald head, looking more like an energetic gnome than an eminent psychiatrist. His offices were nearby; I knew he had just left his last patient of the day. He was close to eighty but he still carried a full caseload, still acted as director of a large foundation, still loved to escape to the golf course whenever he could.
By the time he came over and sat beside me, the waiter had brought his invariable bottle of ale. I had not seen him for several months, but he seemed as indestructible as ever. "Well, young man," he said without preliminary, "what's troubling you?"
I had long since ceased to be surprised at his perceptiveness. So I proceeded to tell him, at some length, just what was bothering me. With a kind of melancholy pride, I tried to be very honest. I blamed no one else for my disappointment, only myself. I analyzed the whole thing, all the bad judgments, the false moves. I went on for perhaps fifteen minutes, while the Old Man sipped his ale in silence.
When I finished, he put down his glass. "Come on," he said. "Let's go back to my office."
"Your office? Did you forget something?'
"No," he said mildly. "I want your reaction to something. That's all."
A chill rain was beginning to fall outside, but his office was warm and comfortable and familiar; book-lined walls, long leather couch, signed photograph of Sigmund Freud, tape recorder by the window. His secretary had gone home. We were alone.
The Old Man took a tape from a flat cardboard box and fitted it into the machine. "On this tape," he said, "are three short recordings made by three persons who came to me for help. They are not identified, of course. I want you to listen to the recordings and see if you can pick out the two-word phrase that is the common denominator in all three cases." He smiled. "Don't look so puzzled. I have my reasons."
What the owners of the voices on the tape had in common, it seemed to me, was unhappiness. The man who spoke first evidently had suffered some kind of business loss or failure; he berated himself for not having worked harder, for not having looked ahead. The woman who spoke next had never married because of a sense of obligation to her widowed mother; she recalled bitterly all the marital chances she had let go by. The third voice belonged to a mother whose teenage son was in trouble with the police; she blamed herself endlessly.
The Old Man switched off the machine and leaned back in his chair. "Six times in those recordings a phrase is used that's full of a subtle poison. Did you spot it? No? Well, perhaps that's because you used it three times yourself down in the restaurant a little while ago." He picked up the box that had held the tape and tossed it over to me. "There they are, right on the label. The two saddest words in any language."
I looked down. Printed neatly in red ink were the words: IF ONLY.
"You'd be amazed," said the Old Man, "If you knew how many thousands of times I've sat in this chair and listened to woeful sentences beginning with those two words. "If only," they say to me, "I had done it differently" or not done it at all. If only I hadn't lost my temper, said that cruel thing, made that dishonest move, told that foolish lie. If only I had been wiser, or more unselfish, or more self-controlled." They go on and on until I stop them. Sometimes I make them listen to the recordings you just heard. "If only," I say to them, "you'd stop saying if only, we might begin to get somewhere!"
The Old Man stretched out his legs. "The trouble with if only," he said, "is that it doesn't change anything. It keeps the person facing the wrong wayaEU"backward instead of forward. It wastes time. In the end, if you let it become a habit, it can become a real roadblockaEU"an excuse for not trying anymore.
Now take your own case: Your plans didn't work out. Why? Because you made certain mistakes. Well, that's all right: Everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes are what we learn from. But when you were telling me about them, lamenting this, regretting that, you weren't really learning from them."
"How do you know?" I said, a bit defensively.
"Because,"said the Old Man, "you never got out of the past tense. Not once did you mention the future. And in a way, be honest, now, you were enjoying it. There's a perverse streak in all of us that makes us like to hash over old mistakes. After all, when you relate the story of some disaster or disappointment that has happened to you, you're still the chief character, still in the center of the stage."
I shook my head ruefully. "Well, what's the remedy?"
"Shift the focus," said the Old Man promptly. "Change the key words and substitute a phrase that supplies lift instead of creating drag."
"Do you have such a phrase to recommend?"
"Certainly. Strike out the words "if only", substitute the phrase NEXT TIME."
"That's right. I've seen it work minor miracles right here in this room. As long as a patient keeps saying if only to me, he's in trouble. But when he looks me in the eye and says next time, I know he's on his way to overcoming his problem. It means he has decided to apply the lessons he has learned from his experience, however grim or painful it may have been. It means he's going to push aside the roadblock of regret, move forward, take action, resume living. Try it yourself. You'll see."
My old friend stopped speaking. Outside, I could hear the rain whispering against the windowpane. I tried sliding one phrase out of my mind and replacing it with the other. It was fanciful, of course, but I could hear the new words lock into place with an audible click.
"One last thing," the Old Man said. "Apply this little trick to things that can still be remedied." From the bookcase behind him, he pulled out something that looked like a diary. "Here's a journal kept a generation ago by a woman who was a schoolteacher in my hometown. Her husband was a kind of amiable ne'er-do-well, charming but totally inadequate as a provider. This woman had to raise the children, pay the bills, keep the family together. Her diary is full of angry references to Jonathan's weaknesses, Jonathan's shortcomings, Jonathan's inadequacies.
"Then Jonathan died, and all the entries ceased except for one, years later. Here it is: Today I was made superintendent of schools, and I suppose I should be very proud. But if I knew that Jonathan was out there somewhere beyond the stars, and if I knew how to manage it, I would go to him tonight."
The Old Man closed the book gently. "You see? What she's saying is, if only; if only I had accepted him, faults and all; if only I had loved him while I could." He put the book back on the shelf. "That's when those sad words are the saddest of all: when it's too late to retrieve anything."
He stood up a bit stiffly. "Well, class dismissed. It has been good to see you, young man. Always is. Now, if you will help me find a taxi, I probably should be getting on home."
We came out of the building into the rainy night. I spotted a cruising cab and ran toward it, but another pedestrian was quicker.
"My, my," said the Old Man slyly. "If only we had come down ten seconds sooner, we'd have caught that cab, wouldn't we?"
I laughed and picked up the cue. "Next time I'll run faster."
"That's it," cried the Old Man, puffing his absurd hat down around his ears. "That's it exactly!"
Another taxi slowed. I opened the door for him. He smiled and waved as it moved away. I never saw him again. A month later, he died of a sudden heart attack, in full stride, so to speak.
More than a year has passed since that rainy afternoon in Manhattan. But to this day, whenever I find myself thinking if only, I change it to next time. Then I wait for that almost-perceptible mental click. And when I hear it, I think of the Old Man.
A small fragment of immortality, to be sure. But it's the kind he would have wanted.
Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching.