It’s the cry of a beleaguered spouse who just discovered a betrayal. Or a parent dealing with a grown kid’s life blunders. Or a care giver, lamenting what might have come of the years pinned down by another’s needs.
Most of us have a rational brain that knows to switch off the “What if?” thoughts of middle and later life. But care giving grinds on rational thinking, and helps stupid take over. So the useless pondering of past possibilities comes clanking into our heads. We look back and lament, and the past gums up the present.
I was reading the thoughts of a 16th century Spanish nun (hey, what do you want me to do with some free time, think about “What if?”), who counseled her sisters against the allure of heroic thoughts based on what they “should” accomplish. She was concerned that they might expect more of their lives than God asked, and give up on good things that didn’t fit their illusions of what might have been. She wrote,
…sometimes the devil gives us great desires so that we will avoid setting ourselves to the task at hand, serving our Lord in possible things, and instead be content with having desired the impossible. Apart from the fact that by prayer you will be helping greatly, you need not be desiring to benefit the whole world but must concentrate on those who are in your company, and thus your deed will be greater since you are more obliged toward them. Do you think such deep humility, your mortification, service of all and great charity toward them, and love of the Lord is of little benefit? This fire of love in you enkindles their souls, and with every other virtue you will be always awakening them. Such service will not be small but very great and pleasing to the Lord. By what you do in deed – that which you can – His Majesty [God] will understand that you would do much more. (Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle VII:4.14)
Yeah, we can think of all the beautiful, heroic, meaningful, and/or pleasant things we might have pulled off in all of those “lost” years.
Or we can toss into our groaning minds the thought that those years, while not always pleasant, were in fact beautiful, heroic and meaningful for the people in our care, and in the eyes of God.