We all have if onlys.
If only my career had taken this turn? If only I’d had a relationship with that person? If only I hadn’t had this accident? If only I’d made a different decision?
I have a very strong if only. When I was 9 I won a choral scholarship to Kings College, Cambridge. There are only 5 awarded nationwide each year. I had a very good treble voice with easy Eb6s (yes really above high C) and was very bright musically.
Between winning the scholarship and going to Kings there were months of studying French and Latin to catch up with the prep-school-educated boys.
I was a council house boy from the local junior school in Shropshire.
After much heartache, my family and I turned the scholarship down as we simply didn’t have the money – the scholarship wouldn’t even have paid for the Eton suits and top hats, let alone the fees.
And months after I turned it down, we discovered a local scholarship fund that had pledged to fund everything for us.
So the question I’ve asked myself a lot over the last few decades is, if only I’d gone to Kings instead of the local grammar school, what would my life be like now? I would have had such different experiences. Would I have been a different person or the same person having different experiences? If I’d taken that scholarship – would I have had much better musical training through my teen years to become a world class singer? Oxbridge graduate, youngest ever professorship, prolific academic?
Here’s what I think at the age of 58.
If onlys are slices of time that are frozen. When we think about our if onlys, we think of the person we were up to that point. The scenario is narrow, idealised, and doesn’t take into account anything in the imaginary future changing that “trajectory”.
There’s something else too. Most if onlys are weirdly positive, even though they don’t seem it. “If only I had taken that scholarship, I’d be more successful in some way than I am now.” But what if on my first day in Cambridge I was run over by a bus? Or the teachers hated me? Or my voice had changed early and Cambridge had no place for me after a year?
Essentially most if onlys are stories, fables, once-upon-a-times to somehow make us feel different.
And more than this, when I think about my own if onlys, the stories tend to rely on other people. Whether they’re missed relationships or magical careers, they rely on other people being involved, offering us work, supporting us. And so the difference between an if only and current reality is…?
Our current reality comes from our decisions. Every decision you’ve made (or not made) means you are at this point right now. And that means anything in your life that you love is because of you.
Just let that sink in for a moment. Everything in your life that means something to you is because of you. And by the same token, everything in your life that you don’t love, is also because of you. And that means you are in charge of changing it. If you want to.
Consider that right now, you are in the best place you could be. For you. At this moment. And the reason that the if onlys even occur is because you came to a “fork in the trouser of time” (thank you Terry Pratchett) and you’re wondering now if you took the wrong leg. I’d like to say you always took the correct leg, because it was the best leg for you to take at the time. And taking that leg at that time brings you to here and now.
By all means indulge in if onlys – fantasising is helpful to show you perhaps something that you’d like to happen or to be. But remember that you’re here now, and your life is exactly how it’s supposed to be. What would you like to do with it now?
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