“You can clutch the past so tightly to your chest that it leaves your arms too full to embrace the present” (Jan Glidewell)

Embracing the present is a recognition that life can only be understood backward but that it must be lived forward. Richard L Evans (Tonic for our Times) notes: “Those who gaze too much upon the past, who think too much about what might have been, are running something of the same risk as the driver who keeps his eyes too much upon his rear-view mirror and is inattentive to the road ahead. Experience is a great teacher; it is the road we have been over. But the wrecks in the rear aren’t the ones we are now trying to avoid. It’s the curves ahead that count now.”

Some people get caught up or lost in their yesterdays, but the past is to be understood within the context of the future. Part of persevering and moving forward is leaving behind distracting baggage from the past. It is learning from and then letting go of failures and mistakes and being decisive about future paths yet to be travelled. In the Reader’s Digest inspirational book, Everyday Greatness, Arthur Gordon relates his enlightening story, “Two Words to Avoid, Two Words to Remember” (abridged):

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 old friend (the Old Man, as I privately and affectionately thought of him) failed to cheer me as it usually did. 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. “Well, young man,” he said without preliminary, “what’s troubling you?” I proceeded to tell him, at some length, just what was bothering me. When I finished, he put down his glass. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go back to my office.”

When in his office, the Old Man took a tape from a flat cardboard box and fitted it into a machine. “On the 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. Don’t look 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 looking 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 subtle poison. Did you spot it? No? Well, that’s because you used it three times yourself down in the restaurant a little while ago.” He picked up the box that 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 the 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 had not 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’ is that it doesn’t change anything. It keeps the person facing the wrong way – backward instead of forward. It wastes time. In the end, if you let it become a habit, it can become a real roadblock, an excuse for not trying anymore.”

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. Strike out the words ‘if only’ and substitute the phrase ‘next time’.”

”Next time?” I asked.

“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 learnt from his experience, however grim or painful it may have been. It means he is going to push aside the roadblock of regret, move forward, take action, resume living. Try it yourself. You’ll see.”

Thinking and saying ‘next time’ is shifting out of the past and making steps towards the future. You need to get out of the past tense. Dr Stephen R Covey notes: “The land of ‘if only’ is wide open territory. Though lacking anything of lasting value, it is a tempting place to visit when times get tough, or things do not go your way. On the other hand, the road to ‘next time’ opens entire vistas of opportunity and is far more likely to lead you to the rewards of the perseverance.”

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