Looking Back: “What if” and “If Only”


In my most recently book, A Time to Every Purpose, the question “what if?” is printed on the cover, because the story involves a young man who gets to see what life might have been, given a different set of circumstances. (Of course, he had the advantage of a rather flamboyant angel to guide him. We usually have to settle for therapy!)

Many events in life probably prompt such introspection and reflection. For the main character in my book, it was the funeral of a friend, and his own uncertain health. For us, it could be brought on by something as simple as the advent of a new year or as serious as a near death experience, a life-threatening diagnosis, the birth of a child or a financial reversal.

It could also be a birthday.
Another year older, and how did I get here?
(This week is my birthday, which prompted my own "trip down memory lane," resulting in extensive journaling, leading to this post.)

Too often, the pilgrimages into our memories are accompanied by remorse, shame and an abundance of second guessing. (That's why we call them "Guilt Trips.")
We consider the “road not taken” or the missteps on the chosen path.
We wish for different choices. Better choices.
We dredge up our mistakes.
We wonder....
We want to change what happened. We would ignore the warnings of a “Butterfly Effect” in favor of a Quantum Leap approach. (My geeky friends will get that one.)


Experts tell us our recollections of past events are probably not accurate; they are filtered, flawed and subjective. But it doesn’t always eliminate our regrets. How sad that these dark specters can overshadow our memories, making us forget there were also noble decisions, right choices, positive results, caring people. There is good in our past as well as bad. (Cue the theme song to Facts of Life.)

I certainly don’t have the answers on how to process our past to avoid the heavy weight of “what if” and “if only.” (I have bruises on my psyche from beating myself up!) I’m not sure regret is avoidable, aside from complete erasure of our memory. I’m hoping the same can’t be said for guilt.

And over the past few weeks leading up to my birthday, I’ve been involved in this activity of recall, questioning, recrimination...and self-flagellation. As I look back, there are so many things I wish were different. So many choices I would change. So much pain I inflicted—sometimes on purpose, usually inadvertently. So many people damaged by my actions. I’m acutely aware that my decision to live honestly hurt many people (my children, my wife, my family, my church, my friends, brothers and sisters in the faith), and I retain much guilt for the collateral damage left in the wake of my personal journey! While I know it was the right thing for me to do, and I'm at peace with who I am now, it came at an extremely high cost.

I'm not a morose person, and that's not the intent of this entry. My faith affirms Divine Oversight in my life. I embrace the reality of God’s grace and mercy in forgiveness, but also recognize that some who were hurt by me and my actions are not able to extend it to me. (Which I totally understand, since I often have difficulty forgiving myself!)

Several years ago I was asked in a Bible study: “If you had it to do all over again, would you have ‘come out’ earlier and not gotten married?”

Of course, we know—at least, intellectually—that preoccupation with such a hypothetical scenario is futile. And we can see the obvious flaw in the entire idea of wishing to change something...anything...in our past. Who we are now is the compilation of all our experiences, good and bad. We are the result of all our decisions, right and wrong. They are all inseparably connected and intertwined, and we are the person we are today because of, not in spite of, our past. Granted, it doesn’t alleviate the regrets, but maybe it works to give us a healthier perspective.

And by the way, here’s my answer to the question asked about my marriage and "coming out." First, it was a different time (mid-1970s). I wanted to go into the ministry, in the Southern Baptist Church, so being gay was out of the question and being married was expected. (It’s also why I began “ex-gay” treatments, another lasting regret. I was hurt by the programs, and in turn, hurt others.) But more to the point, if I answered in the affirmative, it would negative my children’s lives. I cannot imagine my life without them. They are the good that shines bright in the darkness of all my past mistakes.


As someone living with cancer, I consider another birthday an extraordinary (and unexpected) blessing! Not long after my second diagnosis, someone asked me: Don't you wish you'd taken better care of yourself when you were younger? Obviously I wonder if there was anything I could have done when I was younger to prevent my cancer. (DUH!) But isn't that also another futile exercise? (And for the record, I don't see how asking anyone struggling with an illness a question like that can be seen as helpful. Or even nice. It merely adds guilt to an already emotional situation.)

If I could give myself one gift for my birthday, it would be to release the guilt of my past mistakes and to forgive myself. (At my age, I think it’s time!) I want to get past my past! That way, if there’s the opportunity next year, perhaps the noise of “what if” and “if only” from my then will be drown out by the grateful acknowledgment that it brought me to my now.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: As I read back over this, I thought it was important to clarify a few things. I made the choice to "come out," but I did not choose to be gay. I don't see that as contradictory to my faith; in fact, I view honesty and integrity as central elements of a Christian's life. I regret that some of my past actions injured others, but in no way do I equate that with a sinfulness of being gay, nor am I ashamed of who I am. I certainly don't think the guilt and regret about my past correlates to (as one person insisted) "the conviction of the Holy Spirit." I think "coming out" was essential for me, but I wish I'd had the wisdom of hindsight to do it with less hurt to those around me. (i.e., "if I knew then what I know now").

P.S. This entry is extremely personal, and I'm too subjective to know if it's overly maudlin. That's not my intention. I've promised to share whatever was "bubbling up" in my head, and I've always been transparent here. Take it in that way, please.