I saw a license plate today that read, "IF ONLY". It echoed some of the familiarly haunting thoughts that had been running through my head this morning. We all have things in our past that we wish had gone differently. Some things are painful failures, but others are joyous milestones that have lost their luster. Commitments we made in a time of naivete, can begin to feel like shackles as time wears on. We can become preoccupied with imagining how life would be now if these things were different.
But the truth is that life could not have been different. Everyone makes choices at a moment in time based upon the information they have at that time. Generally, the information is insufficient to make an truly informed decision. The fact that experience comes from making poorly informed decisions is one of life's many counterintuitive aspects. It is for this reason, that we could not have changed the past.
"If I knew then what I know now."
At any point in the past, we could not have acted differently without different information. However, different information is not inherently a change maker either. When a lifetime (however young the person) is spent building a library of experience, a brief introduction to life-changing information is bound to be insufficient to make an impact. Regardless of how truthful the information is, or how completely the recipient accepts it as truth, the momentum of conflicting past information will tend to overtake it.
Our brains are built to form habits. Our conscious minds are limited, and so we differ certain regularly accessed data stores and repeated actions to our subconscious mind. The subconscious acts as an autopilot, running our routines in the background so that we can be conscious of more important decisions. Unfortunately, the subconscious tends to be overzealous—or we tend to be lazy with our conscious minds. Either way, we form some habits of thought and action that are counterproductive, then we re-enforce them through repetition.
Consequently, it is more difficult to "teach an old dog new tricks" than it is to teach a younger one. That being said, when applied to humans, this adage judges "old" by how long it has been since the last time one's habits have been deeply examined. By identifying problem areas in our habitual minds, we can begin the process of re-educating ourselves to think, then act, differently. This takes time, and is a bit like turning a battleship.
All we can do about the past is to learn from it. By rooting out the causes behind our regrets, we can begin to change the course going forward. The more we learn from media sources about the human condition, the better equipped we are to self-examine and to change what we find. And, of course, you have to take responsibility for the problems that you caused. Running from your faults is the surest way to make more regrets.
No matter how much better it seems that life would be now without that "ball-and-chain" from your past, consider the truth of your ideal. Given your mindset, if things had gone differently, would you have made different decisions? Or would you have chased another woman if your wife had snubbed you? If you hadn't sworn at your boss that day, would you have sworn at him the next? You might wish you hadn't decided to have a child or hadn't had that decision made for you (by fate, et al). Just consider how many times you had missed committing yourself before your thoughts led to actions which led to the consequences (desirable or not).
Likely, it could not have been different. Even if you travelled back in time to warn yourself, the odds are that your habitual mind and the surrounding circumstances would have lead you to the same place. The only way to change your future results—to avoid the regrets and "if onlys"—is through continuous, applied self-examination enabled by a mentor and a varied diet of media sources. It may take time to turn the battleship, but the future CAN be different.