“If Only . . . “by Mark W. Harris

 First Parish of Watertown –   November 27, 2016


Opening Words – from Ralph Waldo Emerson

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”


Reading – from On My Own by Diane Rehm


Life is filled with “might have beans” or “what if’s.”   As soon as I began thinking about this sermon examples kept popping up.  I recently saw the Woody Allen movie “Café Society” at the library.  It is the story of Bobby Dorfman, a young New Yorker who goes to Hollywood to find a job with his rich and famous uncle Phil, who is an agent to the movie stars.  Bobby falls in love with his uncle’s secretary, Veronica or Vonnie and they enjoy time together, but it turns out that Vonnie is also having an affair with uncle Phil, who is a married man. Vonnie ends up loving both men, but finally Phil decides to abandon his wife, and Vonnie agrees to marry him. Disappointed and forlorn, Bobby returns to New York, and makes it big in the nightclub business.  He marries another woman named Veronica, and life is fine until the original Vonnie pays him a visit with his uncle.  Bobby and Vonnie both feel the spark of romance all over again, and agonizingly ask themselves, what if they had chosen each other in the first place?  This unrequited love has been smoldering for years.  The movie leaves us with the question unanswered, will they abandon their respective spouses and act on the love that still burns in their hearts? Or will they always ask themselves, what if I had chosen differently? Or finally, what if they stay with their spouses, and accept their decision as something to be thankful for. The movie ends, and we never know.

The same day I saw the movie, we returned the church silver to the Museum of Fine Arts. It seemed like perfect timing to stay and see the William Merritt Chase exhibit, which has been on my must see list.  I thought this was a fabulous show, especially the pastels. One painting I recognized in the show was a portrait Chase did of the famous American artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler (think “Whistler’s Mother”). It seems that Chase met Whistler when Chase stopped in London on his way to Spain in 1885. He had admired Whistler for a long time, and wanted to introduce himself.  But he extended his stay when Whistler encouraged Chase to remain in London so that they could paint portraits of each other.  This was a bad idea.  Chase despised the experience. He said Whistler proved to be a veritable tyrant, painting for hours on end so that the posing Chase had limbs that ached and his head throbbed. Whistler would continually scream, “Don’t move!” Finally, it seems that Whistler may have destroyed his portrait of Chase, possibly because of his response to Chase’s portrait of him. Chase created an elongated Whistler using drab colors. He believed his portrait honored Whistler, but it backfired. Whistler was deeply offended, and called the painting a “monstrous lampoon,” and furthermore never spoke to Chase again.  I think we would call him a difficult person. Do you suppose Chase might have asked himself, what if I had said no to the idea of painting each other, and just continued with my original plan to relax in Spain? Poor Chase may have wondered for years how things could have turned out differently – what if I altered my style? OR perhaps he said to himself I am glad I learned what he was truly like.  Good riddance. He thought it was a good portrait. I thought so, too.

These cultural experiences represent two typical ways we ask ourselves, what if . . . or if only . . We may have lives of endless speculation. Some of us may go back to childhood memories and ponder what if our family lives had not been a civil war much of the time. Or perhaps we are more up to date and ask what if we had worked harder on this last election to ensure the victory of our chosen candidate, and now we fear for the future. We may despair over our lack of action, and regret that it might have been otherwise.  In our lives we have all wondered about that partner or lover who we rejected or rejected us, and then we concocted scenarios about what life might have been if we stayed with them.  Maybe we even tried to meet up with them again years later, or at least thought about them. Maybe we feel we made a mistake with the choice we made, but now it is too late.

There are so many decisions in life where we ask this, including having a child, or taking a job, or moving away. And even long after we made the decision that resulted in today’s status quo, we wonder – what if I took that church, or moved to Minnesota?  Those are the big what if decisions we sometimes reflect back upon, but there are also daily decisions, which may seem insignificant, but like Chase, they may end a relationship forever, just because we did not live up to someone’s expectations, or they were just too difficult to bear.   How often, like Chase, might we say to ourselves, if only I had continued on my way, and not stopped and changed my plans, or if only I had responded differently.  We might have stayed friends. He might not have gotten so upset. Perhaps I could reach out to him.  And then there are all those little daily reminders that there are so many things that could have been different –driving home a different way, being in a particular place at a certain time. Time . . . everything is timing.

There is a new book called Time Travel: A History by James Gleick.  I have always been fascinated by time travel, since I first encountered it with Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  Can we change history?  Can we change our history? Some have speculated that time travel books are our new dystopias.  We dream of switching lives to different eras in time, so we occupy Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones. I think some of those reenactors must wish they lived at a different time..  Other writers see time travel as a quest for immortality. This is not merely about our own finite lives, but more particularly the life of the planet.  In years to come we may use up all the planet’s resources, but we think that in this future world we will travel from planet to planet after we have consumed all that is useable in the old one. Or perhaps we can indeed time travel and go to the past so that we can teach the inhabitants of earth to preserve their resources, and thus prevent ecological disaster.  Time travel became a new genre of literature more than a century ago, almost a new kind of science. It was not only a challenge to invent some kind of machine to travel in, like a “Back to the Future” DeLorean time machine, but it was a challenge to see if we could alter history so that the disasters human created could somehow be avoided.

There is an interesting bit of time travel that is created in the musical “Hamilton.” Who makes up this cast that depicts the founders of our country like Washington, Burr and Hamilton? In the lived history of the past they were the old dead white men who are often much maligned these days in their stone cold, marble mantles, but they are the ones who occupied that historical moment. Yet the cast would have us reinvent history, and give a place to a much more diverse group. For women, people of color, the poor and oppressed, this diversity of today’s past takes the historical separation that they feel in this formative part of our nation’s history, and suddenly gives them a central place in it.  In 1800 they were locked out of the room where this happened, so as much as we say the founders called for freedom, they also denied basic rights to others. What this change of history does is make the founders people who fought for everyone, not just the privileged few. So instead of maligning them as odious, we transform them in the new history into a diverse patchwork of the America we are today.

Hamilton reminds us that history always belongs, not to the winners, as we often presume, but to the writers.  Today we often hear of former icons such as Jefferson reviled for racism and slave holding, even to the point of neglecting his contributions to our national values of freedom and equality.  Complete rejection of the past, may destroy the very foundation we build upon, so there is something appealing about taking the vision of a nation built upon diversity and immigrants, and making it come alive in our very founding to reflect the country we dream of living in to today.  We can be culturally accurate even as we blur what is “historically” accurate, so we can all see ourselves reflected in the story. It becomes my story, too. We have the opportunity to reclaim a history that some don’t necessarily think is their own.   We can ask again, what if . . the founders were so diverse?

Those who feel left out of our nation’s past would probably like to travel back in time to be able to literally change this history.  They want to be part of it. Rosalind Williams, who donated our flowers this morning, and is an MIT professor recently reviewed Glieck’s book on Time Travel in the Washington Post. She says time travel reflects one of humanity’s deepest longings. It comes from an awareness that every moment passes, and that we are transient creatures in a transient world.  Every day we are haunted by losses – the things we might have done differently, but also the people we have lost to the past. And so when I conduct a memorial service I reflect on all that this person loved and lived for when they were alive, and people evoke memories of what it was to be with this person day in and day out. They time travel, if you will, back to the days when the person was full of life.  And perhaps our imagination about literal heavens are the dreams we hold to time travel into the future to be reunited with the ones we loved. We don’t want to lose what we love, and so we imagine how we might regain it.

Glieck concludes that all time travel is really a longing for immortality, a way to elude death. There can often be many assorted what if’s as a loved one nears the end of life. We make medical decisions and then question ourselves that we could have done more. The idea to preach on this topic surfaced for me last month when I attended the memorial service for the wife of a colleague.  He and I were part of a UU historical meeting here in Watertown in July when he told us his wife’s cancer had gone into remission, and that he was expecting life to return to normal for her, and him.  It was not to be so, and we heard the surprising news this fall that she had died.

Thus I was struck at the memorial service when the minister reminded us to remember what was, not what might have been.  I could hear echoes of what if we had treated her sooner, or what if we had tried this, but they had responded in all the ways that she found conformed to her values, and how she wanted to live her life. We can all endlessly ask ourselves what might have been, and feel terrible, or we can let go of those things which are now out of our control, or perhaps were never in our control, and accept them.  In the end it is best to celebrate what we have.  We remember what was with grief and loss, but also in celebration for all the happiness and joy it brought us. Diane Rehm in our reading asks, what if her husband had lived to see her win the humanities medal, and speculates how happy he would have been, but it was not to be.

We have said that the idea of time travel emanates from our longing to connect to those loved ones we have lost.  We go to the past to be with them again as they are gone from our lives.  We go to the future to be reunited with them again, so we can know the joy and love we once knew yet again.  Yet in reality we know we are captured in time, and so while we can look back or forward to a dream state or another time or place, we also know that this is the only time we will know. Time negates possibility because it erases the life we might have had.  We mostly do not get a second chance.  We choose one partner.  We choose one career. We know those lives can change, as they have for me.  Yet there are things that are not in our control, and once we make a choice we cannot go back.  Life does not have a do over. Time erases the life we might have had. It erases what if. . . because what if has become what is . . . especially as the years pass by.  So even as less is in our control as the years pass, how we respond to life’s circumstances is always in our control.

So as we celebrate the leftovers of thanksgiving, we can make the choice to feel gratitude for the life we have, rather than feel regret for the choices we made, or anger for what happened to us.  Rather than saying life would be better if this didn’t happen to me, we say this is what happened to me, and I can respond to these circumstances by loving the life that I have. Rather than saying what if I had chosen that career, or that partner, we might ask:  What if I greeted each day with gratitude for all that I am, and all that I have, rather than feel regret for what I have failed at or are missing?  What if I greeted each day with the courage to try new things rather than fear that if I do something it won’t work out.  What if I greet each day with hope that something good will happen to me rather than I am going to be victimized or will lose out.  What if I greet each day with the belief that I will be given the chance to try something new rather than the belief that life holds no new possibilities.

It is okay to grieve for the life you won’t be able to live, but then we must let go of what if and accept what is no longer in our control. Then, what if we greet the day in celebration of what you have been able to live – the people you have met, the art and culture you have seen and heard, the food you have eaten, the places you have been, the books you have read, the care others have shown for you, and still do. There are so many what ifs in life that pass you by, or that you failed to choose or see, but yet there has always been so much to be thankful for; the joy you have felt in the morning, and the peace you have felt at night, and all the laughs and learning and even the trials that challenged you and helped you grow in between.  Each day you can shout, what if or if only I had  . . .. or, you can shout it has all been so amazing, and I am so thankful for it. Live for the good each day.


Closing Words – from Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology

“And I never started to plow in my life

That some one did not stop in the road

And take me away to a dance or picnic.

I ended up with forty acres;

I ended up with a broken fiddle—

And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,

And not a single regret.”