It Might Have Been

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, “It might have been.”  John Greenleaf Whittier

I remember reading this quote years ago.  I tried to take heed to these words because they rang true to me.  Now as I’m working my way around the sun for the sixty-something time, they are truly depressing words.  For all of the attention I thought I had paid to them, I really didn’t.  And now I’ve awakened to the fact that I really didn’t live as I guess I was supposed to.  I didn’t go after “what might have been.”  If I had just opened my eyes, looked around at the rest of the world, and had the right values and priorities I would have been happier than I am now.

I was always the obedient one.  From childhood on I did what I was told to do.  I didn’t disobey parents, teachers, or anyone else I saw as having a position or authority or influence over me.  At some point I became an adult, but this behavior never stopped.  I continued to do what I was told even when it was extremely inconvenient, it wasn’t what I wanted to do at all, or even if I had other plans.  Even as my mother approached death, I did what I was told by my father and flew home.  I listened.  I had been staying at his house and was told to go.  I went. I wasn’t with her in the end because he told me not to be…and it sounded so ridiculous when my sister said, “Well, why didn’t you stay?” and I answered, “He wouldn’t let me.”  She was always the independent one who did what she wanted, when she wanted.  If someone didn’t like it, well, that was not her problem.  I often said I want to be her when I grow up.

This went on long past when I acknowledged that it wasn’t what I really should do.  At one time I told my mother that in my next life I was coming back as a total screw-up.  If you are someone who is always doing the opposite of what you were told, who never showed up, couldn’t be counted on, lost one job after another, and everything else that goes with that, no one ever expects anything of you.  When you finally do something right, everyone is falling all over you to praise what a wonderful thing you did.  Meanwhile, people like me who have been doing the right and responsible thing forever and trying to please everyone plod along without being noticed.  Until you screw up and it’s the end of the world.

But that people-pleasing was only the start of how I now look back at “what might have been”and compare the way I have lived my life with what I’m seeing in everyone else.  I’ve held by a few tenets in my life:

  1. I believe very strongly in what Jesus called the two greatest commands – to love the Lord with all your heart, mind and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself.
  2. I learned the Golden Rule as a young child and have always tried to treat every person as I would like to be treated.  I very consciously try to make my decisions so that no one is hurt, left out, or pained. I don’t care about where a person came from, where they stand on an economic ladder, what religion they follow, what color their skin is, who they love, how much education they have or any other arbitrary criteria.  I try to treat everyone well and can’t stand it when I’ve hurt someone even if they hurt me.
  3. I wanted to spend my life doing something that was important because it made a difference in people’s lives.
  4. I wasn’t concerned about becoming rich as long as I was doing something that I enjoyed that made a difference.
  5. I held on to an ancient set of values that includes things like not killing, not stealing, not lying, and not committing adultery.

What a schmuck.

I thought those things mattered.  I was confident that they were universal – that even those who didn’t believe in Jesus would have agreed with almost all of these.  I didn’t even want to believe that people were filled with hatred of anything and anyone who wasn’t just like them – who hated total strangers, neighbors, and people they interact with on a daily basis enough to never care how much pain and suffering they caused others.  I didn’t believe that anyone would want to live making decisions that hurt others as long as you got what you want all the time.  When you don’t care about all those little people, numero uno can get every desire of the heart.

Now, I was well aware that many people worshipped at the altar of the almighty dollar.  But I was naive enough to think that not everyone did; that doing something of value to others, to the community, and the greater good would be respected and valued (even if not fully compensated financially).  

And I thought that everyone lived by certain rules that prohibited stealing and murder.  I mean we have laws about those things.  Married people certainly have a problem if their spouses cheat on them.  There is no law about these things, but damn, he took an oath.

Well, as I look around and listen to the words of people, I have come to realize that I believe in and live by a very different set of values than the rest of America (and maybe the world) does.  It’s different than many of my friends and family too.  

I shouldn’t have been a teacher.  You can’t make any money or have any power with a stupid choice like that.  If I had chosen to go into some business field, I would have earned respect and money – as it is, I don’t have either.  If I had chosen differently, I would be able to travel and go to the theater and do all of the other things I would love to do.  My own father constantly tells me how well other people’s children turned out.  “He has a really good job,” “She makes a ton of money,” (and my personal favorite) “She married well.  He has a ton of money” are the yardsticks he uses to measure how well those kids turned out.  And he isn’t unusual.  But that leaves me out.  I heard all the “those who can” adages and such for years, but I put my head in the sand and said they were wrong and they didn’t matter.  

If I hadn’t taught, I would have had not just more money but more time for myself.  Instead of working at home at night and through weekends, I could have done whatever I wanted.  I wouldn’t have to grade papers or do planning for the coming days.  I could have been out being social and making friends.

If I hadn’t been teaching, I could have met more men.  At the very least I should have been hanging out in bars or somewhere instead of being at home grading papers or attending my kid’s athletic events so I could have met a man and remarried well.  I should have done whatever was necessary to find a mate.  Then at least I would have had a second income coming in.  Maybe then I could have enough money to travel, be entertained, and gain respect.

If I had the right attitude about money, not only would I have earned a bundle but I would have held on to it and spent it on the things I wanted.  I wouldn’t be giving it to charities or helping someone get something they need.  I would have all of my bills paid but never worried about someone else’s bills.  My kids would have everything they want, but other people’s kids could go without.  If their parents didn’t have the gumption to earn money or game here escaping a country at war, that wouldn’t be my problem.

After looking at our leaders and the people who are idolized and emulated in our society, I know that lying, cheating, and stealing are just no big deal.  Say something often enough and people will believe it.  It doesn’t matter how outrageous the lie.  All you have to do is start everything you say with “Believe me…” and people will!  Pay your employees so little that they are getting food from the local food pantry.  That’s okay.  Your bonus will be bigger!  Get caught cheating or stealing, you might get a slap on the wrist but what difference does that make if you make lots of money, gain prestige, and keep on going?  So many business leaders are held up as examples of how to be a success, but when you read about their practices and their character, they are walking a very fine line between legal and illegal.  Very often they are on the wrong side of that line, but it’s okay as long as you don’t get caught.  If you get caught, be sure you have someone to blame or declare that you have some drug or mental illness problem.  Get a little treatment and keep on going.  Following all of those Golden Rule and Pollyanna old ways will just get you laughed at and keep you from really being someone.

I used to say that adultery only matters in the first person not the third person.  Nobody cares if they hear of someone else’s spouse cheating.  But when it isn’t her spouse but mine, well this is different.  But I I’ve learned that it is far more nuanced.  Adultery can be right or wrong depending on the semantics of the subject and object in the sentence.  My husband cheating on me is wrong.  Your husband cheating with me is okay.  If I want to screw every Tom, Dick and Harry, that’s okay.  After all it if makes me happy and that is all that matters.  Instead of worrying about the fact that my husband cheated, I should have been just grabbing any man who looked like he was powerful and rich enough no matter what.  If he was married he could have divorced her for me.  I mean look how well that has worked for our politicians and all the folks in public life that we idolize.  Why did I worry about whether a man was available?  Nothing is permanent.

As I was wallowing in my very own pity party pool here, I expressed some of these thoughts to a friend.  She told me that acting like all of those others wouldn’t have worked for me because that isn’t who I am.  But, you see, that’s the point.  I should have had a whole different set of priorities and values.  She said I could never have been happy that way because that isn’t who I am.  But, what the hell, I’m not happy trying to live these values as I see so many being rewarded for lying, cheating, stealing, breaking the law, having affairs with others’ spouses, and manipulating everything and everyone.  I might still be miserable but I’d have enough going on that I would be able to be miserable with a spouse as I travel to Ireland, England, Italy, and Greece.  I could be miserable at a five star restaurant and front row seats on Broadway.  

Young people today won’t face my dilemma.  They are growing up with role models.  They have our current political leaders many of whom have shown their lack of character and that their word means nothing but were rewarded with reelection.  There are the owners of pharmaceutical companies who have quadrupled the cost of medicines in order to improve the bottom line while being able to show up and testify that it was all a good thing.   Business leaders such as Zuckerburg, Besos, and the like show young people how to make millions and millions each year on the backs of their employees who have no health care, are making minimum wage, and are at the local food bank looking for help.  And we have religious leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Franklin Graham to show them how to conflate politics and faith for fame and profit.  Other religious leaders like Pat Robertson are there to take the moral high road and show them who to hate.  So I guess they’ll all be rich, greedy, and happy.  After all, the one who dies with the most toys wins.

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