How many times have you uttered the two little words, “if only?” “If only I hadn’t gone so far into debt.” “If only I had been more respectful of my parents and their needs.” “If only I had spent more time with my kids.” “If only I hadn’t gained so much weight.” “If only I hadn’t spoken such unkind words.” “If only I had chosen a different path.” “If only I had listened to wise counsel.” Your “if onlys” may be worlds-apart different than mine, but there’s a good chance, if you have lived very long at all, you have amassed a huge pile of “if onlys” all your own.
How about those other two little words, “what if?” “What if the bottom falls out?” “What if something bad happens?” “What if I try again and fail again?” “What if other people talk about me?” “What if this relationship doesn’t work out?” “What if I never find my purpose?” “What if we can’t make ends meet?”
These are the things “if onlys” and “what ifs” are made of. “If onlys” communicate remorse and regret over the past. “What ifs” convey fears and anxiety over the future. Both prevent us from living in complete joy in the present. If you are like me, you may teeter between the two on a regular basis. It sort of feels like an irreconcilable, futile tug-of war, lamenting one minute over things I wish I had done differently in the past and dreading unforeseen potentially bad things that may or may not happen in the future.
Can you envision just for a moment how much happier and more serene present life would be if we decluttered all “if onlys” and “what ifs” and never uttered those four words again? “If onlys” and “what ifs” are a complete waste of time and energy because the truth is, we cannot go back and make alterations, nor can we see or control what happens beyond the moment in front of us. “If onlys” and “what ifs” hold the power of rendering us incapable of experiencing joy in the beautiful parts of our own reality and they rob us of being able to live the peaceful life we all crave.
Acceptance, courage, and wisdom are quite possibly the three main qualities we all need on this path to a minimal life.
Acceptance of the things we cannot change
What we sow will grow, and it is impossible to go back and unearth any of the seeds we have planted. We will never find a sense of peace until we make the choice to let go of regret and embrace that what has already happened cannot be undone. Regrets are past deeds for which we refuse to forgive ourselves. Surrendering the grudge we are holding against ourselves is extremely liberating and conducive to peace. It is completely okay to finally forgive yourself for doing the things you wish you hadn’t, leave the past where it happened, let it go, and walk on.
Courage to change the things we can
Since we can’t rewrite the history of our own actions, why not focus our energy on learning the lessons our regrets have taught us and start courageously applying that knowledge to present and future behavior? Why don’t we stop obsessing over what we can’t do and redirect that energy to what we still can? While we can’t change the way we may have treated departed loved ones, we can recklessly and wholeheartedly love and care for the important people who are in our lives today.
Whenever possible, we can say we’re sorry to people we may have hurt along the way. We can nourish relationships with our children and do our best to make up for lost time with them, regardless of their current age. We can scale back on unnecessary commitments and obligations and set our current priorities in order. We can pay off past debt and stop buying things on credit. We can make better eating choices, start exercising, and lose excess weight. We can do whatever it takes to change career paths and start doing something we really love. We can start today by mustering the courage to do the things we wish we had done in the past.
Life is incredibly short, no one is getting any younger, and there is no time like the present. Start today to make the changes you wish you had made years ago.
Wisdom to know the difference
There is a sense of relief that can be found in the mere act of compartmentalizing the things that bother us. Just as it helps us feel more productive to place unwanted physical possessions into minimizing boxes that are labeled, “Donate,” “Sell,” “Trash,” and “Put Away,” tossing troublesome “what ifs” and “if onlys” into the “Things I Can Change” and “Things I Cannot Change” categories will help us feel that we are making progress and taking a step in the right direction. Making the distinction between what we can change and what we cannot change empowers us to take control over hypothetical circumstances and realign our thoughts with what is real and doable.
“If onlys” produce regret. “What ifs” generate anxiety. Both are toxic to our wellbeing, and regardless how much progress we may have made in minimizing stressful situations and letting go of excess physical possessions, they can rob our newfound peace and cause our otherwise simple lives to feel unnecessarily complicated. The next time you are tempted to say, “if only” or “what if,” make the intentional decision to think of something about present life that you are thankful for and give thanks for that instead.
About the Author: Cheryl Smith is the author is the author of the blogs Biblical Minimalism where she writes about minimalism from a Biblical perspective and Homespun Devotions where she writes devotionals and conducts “Inner Views.”