“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut
We all wake up in a panic on some days over time slipping away all too quickly, haunted by regrets about the past, and worries over how to avoid mistakes in the future. It seems to happen more often when we look at the calendar and see our birthday month coming up, a time when I suspect we all end up standing before the jury of us and attempt to measure the value of the year that just passed.
For me, at least at this point in life, regrets over mistakes are not that significant. I’ve learned to let them go. What is an issue, and frankly an unbearable one that angers me like no other, is the one that has to do with chances denied or not taken. If there’s one thing that keeps me up at night, it is this one.
I was born and spent my childhood in a place ruled by dictatorship. Although I knew very well that people were not allowed to leave, it never really sank in until that one day when I overheard a conversation about how my visa was denied as the authorities were not going to allow my mother AND me to go abroad together.
I remember that day all too well. I was 13 years old. I went to my room, sat on the bed, looking up at the map of the world that covered most of my wall, and started to cry. So many countries, so many places I had learned about, and all of them entirely inaccessible. For the first time in my life, I realized I was in a prison. I never imagined that I would actually travel everywhere, nor wanted to. But to be denied the chance should opportunity arise…that was the most frightening, horrible reality to face.
Of course as we look back on our lives from a spot where we know outcomes, and particularly negative ones, we might see alternatives that were available in the past in very a favorable light. But we all make mistakes, and only through them can we learn more about what we need to improve in ourselves. Mistakes we can correct…wrongs we can set right. What we can’t do anything about are missed opportunities…all the things we did not do, the chances we stole from ourselves and others. The outcome doesn’t matter. To have made lesser choices is one thing…but not to have had the chance to try is to be powerless. And that is the worst fate.
Not a day goes by when I don’t come across injustice and suffering, or else difficult situations in my own life or in the lives of others. It’s sad when circumstances are harsh, when people struggle. But nothing is as bad as chances denied. And ultimately, although all of us ask and wish for an easier time, what we’re really asking for is a chance to try to make things work, a chance to overcome obstacles and create the things we value most. And by try, I don’t mean half-hearted attempts crippled by laziness, fear and whatever other excuses. I mean a real effort…wholehearted, right foot forward, optimistic kind of trying.
Granted it isn’t all that easy to always try, or do so with great confidence. The assumption we all make too often is that we will fail, especially in challenging circumstances. To balance that, we must allow that we might very well succeed beyond our wildest expectations.
But regardless of our level of optimism at any given time, I don’t care what the risk is, we can all manage to take it if we consider the alternative. Because the greatest injustice is powerlessness. It is also the greatest suffering. Failure and pain are inevitable, but as long as we have a chance to try, we have power, a sense of control, of relevance…we have hope. We might fail or succeed…but at least we know we did something. Denying ourselves or being denied the chance to try leaves us with nothing…nothing to celebrate, nothing to even regret. We can do nothing about having done nothing.
“The mistakes I’ve made are dead to me. But I can’t take back the things I never did.” ~ Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close