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Cooking is not on my list of favorite things to do. So when the big kettle of chicken soup turned out to be the best I’ve ever made, I called and left a message offering half of it to my daughter-in-law Heidi who was predictably more than busy (she and my oldest son have seven children). Then Doug asked me to do some online ordering for him, and he watched as I turned the stove below “warm,” lower than low, almost off. We went into my office room and proceeded to order. A few minutes later I smelled something burning. I ran into the kitchen to find smoke billowing from the stove, the pot boiling over and a terrible smell permeating everything. With oven mitts I pulled the boiling kettle off the stove and saw bright red. Our quarter-century-old stove which has been unpredictable lately had betrayed me and turned to high instead of warm.
Oh, but surely I could save the top part of the soup! I had worked so hard on it and it was so good! But I had nothing to pour the soup into. I sat the pot on the counter and grabbed my biggest bowl out of the cupboard. You guessed it; I burned the counter-top! And the entire pot of soup was ruined anyway. Doug scrubbed the pot and the counter while I scrubbed the stove, then I called Heidi, who had locked herself out of her car, hadn’t heard my message and wasn’t expecting the soup.
Doug took me out to dinner in an attempt to soothe my frustration, but at first I couldn’t pull myself out of regret. If only I had pulled the pot off the plate entirely before I left the room I could have helped Heidi and had delicious soup for lunches all the week before Christmas. If only I hadn’t set the pot on the counter I wouldn’t have marred it. If only Doug hadn’t come just then to take me out of the kitchen and none of this would have happened. But what a waste of energy “if onlys” are!
What I’ve Decided about “If Onlys”
As we wind up 2011 and look ahead to a new year, perhaps this traditional time of resolutions is a good time to make a very different one: No more “if onlys.” The past is past and is unchangeable: but it can be reframed in light and love.
My regrets over the ruined soup and marred counter were so minor compared to many “if only’s I’ve experienced. So many of the stories I tell myself about the past start with, “If only I had been a better person, then . . . If only I had been spiritually stronger and been raised in a more functional family with better communication skills so I could have had better boundaries, been a better problem solver, more open, THEN I would have made better relationship choices, been a better wife, and wouldn’t have ended up divorced. I would have given my kids better patterns to pass to their children . . . .” The “if onlys” can go on and on.”
My worst “if onlys” have been in regard to my son’s suicide. In an instant I can plunge myself into guilt and shame if I entertain thoughts such as, “If only I could have done whatever would have made the difference. If only I had been more aware and known what was going on . . . .” such “if onlys” are dangerous: the Holy Ghost withdraws, and positive energy drains out.
Why? Because “If only’s” are illusions, even lies. I was the best person I knew how to be back then, as I am right now. And “if onlys” can mirror an attitude of disregard for the power of the Atonement. God’s hand is in all things. In fact, in D&C 59:21 we read, “And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things.”
God knows exactly what He is doing. He sent me to the best family for me, the one that was perfect to give me the experiences I needed to learn the things I most needed to learn. And I married the men that put me in the situations I needed to learn the most. All things work together for good. ( See Romans 8:28, D&C 105:40, D&c 100:15, D&C 90:24, D&C 98:3)
The Lord doesn’t want me to define myself by my weaknesses and failures. That is not the Lord’s way. He forgets repented failures and He GAVE weakness to make me humble (Ether 12:27) , so He can’t condemn me for it. His desire is not to condemn, anyway, but to redeem. ) I was given weakness so I would be humble, so I would sense how much I need the Lord—in everything.
“If onlys” indicate a reluctance to truly believe the scope and depth and breadth of Jesus’ power to make all things right. Truman Madsen said there is no suffering beyond His ability to redeem. Staying stuck in “if onlys” and refusing to forgive myself or others is refusal to accept the redeeming power of the Atonement. Anger, bitterness, resentments are also rejections of the Atonement. Our participation in His sacrifice requires a much smaller sacrifice: giving up our enmity, our regrets, our “if onlys.” To let go of the “if onlys” and forgive life for being what it is, forgive myself for being weak and imperfect, and forgive others, is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was me. I want to be set free.
I can trust God to make everything right in the end if my desires are for righteousness, for peace, for all the blessings of being part of His eternal family. I can let go of all the “if onlys” in regard to my children and forgive myself for any way I let them down, knowing that was never my intent. I wanted to be the perfect mother for them, (maybe pridefully so) but I was just my imperfect self in a very imperfect situation. And I can redefine what a mother should be to grown sons. Beloved counselor and friend Ed McCormack said my job is simply to seek the Spirit and radiate the Spirit, which of course includes charity for them and for myself. That is what I will pray for.
Amazingly, the Lord still works through imperfect, flawed, even flaky people like me. The Lord loves us anyway and works through us to the full extent we will allow Him to. That realization can free me from the guilt of not being more, of not more perfectly living all the good things I’ve written about, for not being further along the road of spiritual progress than I am. I can only move ahead as fast as I can. I’ve always wanted to take giant steps, but baby steps are the name of the game: line upon line, precept upon precept.
I’m finally “getting it” that I have a choice. That I can truly choose to let go of ego and the natural man mind with all its anxiety and misery and “if onlys” and regrets. I don’t have to live there. I can choose differently, moment by moment.
That’s what agency is all about. Of course choosing to transcend it one moment, doesn’t mean I won’t find myself back in it the next. But I can keep choosing to be in the spiritual mind, to listen to the Holy Ghost, to focus my thoughts on light and truth.
So in the New Year, I resolve to continue my quest to quit saying “if only” and to quit asking myself “what if?” I’ll try to stay grounded and deal with today, with “what is.”
Life Goes On; New Joy Is Born
The biggest encouragement I can give is that whenever I transcend the “if onlys” I find a deeper, more satisfying life. Inexplicably, I often realize lately that I’m happier than I’ve ever been. A couple of years ago, after I thought I had finished my book of comfort for those who have lost a loved one to suicide, I took two of my granddaughters, ages three and five, to Murray Park, and suddenly I knew there was something else I wanted to add. I’d like to share that addition with you.
I hadn’t been to that park for years, but it was the one I lived closest to when my sons were growing up. I took Brian and the other boys there so many times, so this return was full of nostalgia. The gazebo and play equipment were new, but the layout was the same, and the same great trees still spread leafy branches over the park. We walked by the river; the girls giggled and ran down a small hill and picked handfuls of dandelions, then ran onto the bridge and threw them into the river. My heart swelled with the sight of the children, so full of life, so happy. I stood on the bridge and watched the water, swift from spring run-off, carry the bright yellow baubles out of sight.
I could never have guessed the trials that lay ahead when I stood on this same bridge watching my sons throw rocks into the water thirty-some years ago. But, like the proverbial “water under the bridge” they have passed and the only thing I can change about the past is how I think about it and how I allow it to affect me. Here’s the important thing: In spite of all the hard things that have happened, I am not only breathing, I am feeling joy again.
Suddenly I was struck by the message in this experience—life goes on. Every year the snow melts in the mountains and the rivers run full, and the water goes swirling and gurgling on its way. Every year the dandelions bloom, and now I’m watching a whole new generation of children pick them. The moment was precious. Every moment is.
Edwin Markham said, “Only the soul that knows the mighty grief can know the mighty rapture. Sorrows come to stretch out spaces in the heart for joy.” But let me make one point absolutely clear. My joy now does not come from having everything just as I would like it to be.
Focusing Hope in the Right Place
About two years after Brian’s death I wrote, “Much of the picture of faith in God is painted with the brush of acceptance of what is.” I’ve changed the focus of my hope. In Moroni 7:41 we read, “And what is it that ye shall hope for? Behold, I say unto you that ye shall have hope through the Atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal, and this because of your faith in him according to the promise.”
Focusing on the Savior and all His promises (and away from the “if onlys”) is my formula for peace. His love is like the light shining from the lighthouse I picked for the cover of my book. My current happiness is not based on the hope that things will “turn out” as I want, and they often don’t. It is built, instead, on a deeper, firmer trust in God’s reality, of Jesus’ love and Atonement, of their constant concern for our welfare no matter how different life is from what I wanted or expected.
Simply put, I’m finally coming to peace with “what is.” I’m resolving to quit waging war with the parts of reality I don’t like, to quit saying “if only things could have been different.” No, I haven’t arrived, but step-by-baby-step, I’m coming alive in a whole new way. The Lord is good. His peace is like a river flowing through the dry land of my life. I look forward to that eternal world of joy I’ll eventually inhabit, but my focus is enjoying this moment, here, today. I choose to express gratitude for all the great blessings of my life and all the beauties of the earth. And especially for the beauty of the gospel plan of redemption and bounteous love. I choose to praise God for all these blessings and ask His help to keep my mind off the “if onlys.” Though I’ve walked a long and thorny path, I have not only survived, but the Lord is helping me live a life full of love and forgiveness.
May the Lord bless us all to live more happily in the New Year by trusting in Him and saying, “no more if only’s!”