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The phrase has a dark, almost ominous sound to it, doesn’t it? It almost sounds cliché, as though you were part of a rag-tag team of mercenaries in some action movie where you and the three untrained (but determined) people with you are about to jump out a plane behind enemy lines to somehow save the world against overwhelming odds. The actual origin of the phrase isn’t as glamorous as all that, but does come from the world of airplanes.
You see, there is a point on the flight of an aircraft when the remaining fuel is less than what is needed to return to the starting point. The Oxford English Dictionary takes it one step further and defines it in a much more broad sense when it says the Point of No Return is “the stage at which it is no longer possible to stop what you are doing and when its effects cannot now be avoided or prevented”.
Whether you take the dictionary definition, the phrase’s actual origin or even the B-Grade Action movie imagery of it, the meaning is pretty much the same (though I do like the Oxford definition because it sounds so much more menacing, but that’s just me).
Chances are pretty good that you’ve used the phrase before, and even greater that you’ve been at the point of no return in a literal or figurative sense at some point in your life. These moments where we cross the point of no return are often times that are burned into our memories like a hot iron.
Maybe it was the time when you were an hour from home when curfew came and knew you were grounded no matter what so you stayed out another three hours. Maybe it was when you called the kid sitting down a wimp and then realized as he stood up to pummel you that he was 12” taller and weighed 175 pounds more than you. Maybe it was something that could be good or bad, like when you reached out to hold your sweetheart’s hand for the first time and knew you were going to be officially dating or officially single depending on her reaction to you making a move like that. We’ve all crossed a point of no return before, and will likely cross a hundred more before we’re done with this life.
Whatever the personal points of no return in our lives are, what we say seems to be the most common way of crossing this proverbial point. A common one I hear from a lot of people is the obviously bad decision to ask when someone’s baby is due before their expression tells you they’re not pregnant and you are a huge jerk to anyone you share that verbal point-of-no-return-story with. Listening to one such story this week is what prompted this week’s article. Of course I felt badly for the young lady who was asked the question, but (surprisingly) felt more sorry for the young man who told the story and told about the subsequent shunning and chastisement he received from his wife for the mistake.
So, for the sake of this young man, as well as every other clueless man who’s asked that question, I wanted to share a point-of-no-return verbal blunder from my past. If you ever make a blunder like the aforementioned young man inquiring about non-existent due dates, feel free to throw me under the bus to save yourself. My blunder went something like this (names have obviously been changed):
About ten years after I served a mission, I decided to return just to visit the people there. In one of my favorite areas, there was a family I stopped to see. They ran a farm and were delightful people in every way. I didn’t tell them I was coming, as I wanted to surprise them. I pulled up to the farmhouse and got out of my rental car as a twenty-something man in overalls approached me. Our conversation went something like this:
“Hey there! I’m looking for the Williams’ farm! Am I in the right place?”
“Are Brother and Sister Williams here right now? I’d love to say hello.”
“Do you know if they’re going to be back soon?” (I didn’t want to miss the chance to see them if they were going to be back before too long.)
Great! I could wait a few minutes to see them. I decided I’d try to get this kid to say more than one syllable.
“Do you live here?”
“Wonderful! Are you their son?”
I slowly closed my eyes as that moment forever burned itself into my brain. I knew I’d always remember that moment and hoped that young lady in overalls would not.
I succeeded at getting more syllables, but I knew I’d crossed a devastating point of no return. There was no recovery, no balm I could offer, no way to undo my verbal misstep. Without saying another word, I walked back to my car, got in and drove away.
I still cringe at spurting something that clumsy out of my mouth, but feel somewhat better knowing that countless young men who cross their own verbal points of no return can use me as the “at least I’m not that guy” face-saver.
You’re welcome, clueless young men.
And I’m really, really sorry, Sister Williams.