"If I had my life to live over again,
I would ask that not a thing be changed,
but that my eyes be opened wider."
Copyright © 2019
by Ralph F. Couey
I would wager that there's not a single one of us who hasn't indulged in asking the question, "What if could start life over again; what would I change?"
It's a self-directed inquiry rooted in that somewhat rueful life review where we remember the mistakes we made, the errors in judgement, and other slip ups that decorate our past. We think that if we could go back in time and correct those missteps, then everything would be different, and better. While there's some truth to that, we overlook the real value of those experiences.
There are two invaluable things we gain through life, education and experience. Education is levied through formal education, but also through the far less formal classroom colloquially referred to as "The Street." While it is important that we reach a certain point knowing how to do most math, identify proper sentence structure, and an appreciation for human history, it is where that structured information mixes with sometimes harsh reality where true understanding is reached.
The context of human experience is vital in the appreciation of what we know. One can read and study about poverty, but until you plant your footsteps in the soil of Africa, you will never appreciate what true poverty really is. One can also read about hate, but until you are face-to-face with someone who is consumed to the point of violence by that hate, you will never understand the power of that emotion. It is, as they say, the difference between knowledge and street smarts.
The thing is, when we think about all the bad things that have happened to us (and we do that way too much), we forget that those events, and the associated powerful emotions have shaped the person we are today. Likewise, all the good things that have happened have also helped to form us. To deny that, even to wish it away is to invalidate a part of who and what we are.
Mistakes are a part of the human experience. We all make them, from the minor slips to the major catastrophe. But it is what we learn from those moments, and the experience we apply to the future that makes them valuable. I've certainly committed some major errors in my life, things that I have regretted ever since. But it is that regret that has kept me from repeating those acts and saying those words. While my actions have cost me relationships in the past, what I learned has certainly saved friendships in the time since.
My life now is a fairly satisfying one. My wife and I are in a very loving and supportive relationship. I have children (now adults) and grandchildren all of whom I love with all my heart. But I know that if I had made major changes to my life, I would not now be in this happy place. For example, I know that if I had spent much more time and effort on my education, I would have emerged from high school and college in a much better position to succeed. But had I done that, I wouldn't have been in that Kansas City bowling alley that Saturday when I looked across about 16 bowling lanes and fastened my eyes on the girl I would marry. That one moment, the glimpse of her long black hair shimmering in the light, changed me forever. I would have been someplace else doing something else. Even the timing of when we had our kids would have changed who and what they would become.
True, my early academic efforts were fraught with failure, but had I not been forced by economic circumstances into the Navy, I would have missed out on the life-changing experiences that flowed to me during those 10 years. It really didn't become apparent until I went back to college in 1990. I had seen the world, planting my feet in the soil of some 37 countries, from the poverty and despair of Africa to the cosmopolitan lights and excitement of places like Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore. I had seen the human experience. Now, I sat in class with young students for whom this trip to the University was their first venture outside their home counties. The difference in perspective was immediately obvious. In relating those experiences, I would be challenged by those who simply could not believe facts, an argument that I stopped with the words, "I was there. I saw it." I would not have traded that perspective for anything.
Those moments when I was convinced that a door had slammed in my face, I now realize opened other opportunistic doors of which I had never been aware. It is a well-worn, even trite phrase, but it is nonetheless true. Suffice to say, however, that in the throes of those bad moments, it is nearly impossible for us to see beyond the immediate disaster. It is always the long view that gives us the proper perspective. That perspective is the only thing I would change about my past, the ability to see beyond the present to the possibility of what lies beyond; to find hope in the midst of despair.
My sorrow, my angst, my regrets, they're all a part of me. I could no more separate myself from them than I could cut off my own arm. For better or worse, they make up the person I am today, one who has hopefully learned from the past.
There is a word for that; the combination of experience, learning, and pain. It is something that is all-too present in old age while completely unavailable in youth. It is the lessons we can pass along to anyone willing to sit down and listen.