Tuesday, December 17, 2013

No Regrets

"Capturing a Desert Moment"

Last Saturday, my wife and I were in the car driving back from the store, listening to a TED talk on our local NPR station. The speaker was so captivating that, even after we arrived home, we just sat in the driveway and listened until the end of the presentation.

Phuc Tran is a teacher of Latin and Greek who came to this country with his family back in the 1970's. He is a very accomplished, fluent speaker of English and Vietnamese, and his talk on NPR was about how language influences (forms and fashions) the way people think.

He made the point that, unlike English, Vietnamese and other Asian languages do not have a "subjunctive" verb structure. At first this may sound kind of boring (and who cares), but actually the way the subjunctive is used (or not used) is very significant to the way people view the world and make sense of reality.

In his talk, Mr. Tran related how he tried to explain the nuances of the English use of the subjunctive verb with his Vietnamese dad who had no comprehension of what the "subjunctive" is:  "Dad, listen - in English you might say "If it had't rained, we would've gone to the beach." That's a subjunctive."

To which his father replied; "That's pretty stupid. Why do you want to talk about something that didn't happen?"

When I was listening to the radio program last Saturday, the father's response really grabbed my attention.

I actually think English speaking people in Western cultures use a lot of subjunctive verbs.  We spend a great deal of time talking about (and thinking about) things in the past that never happened- but might have happened. We also talk about things in the future that never yet happened, but might happen or could happen - a language chuck full of "coulds, woulds, and mights. 

In his fascinating presentation last Saturday, Phuc Tran suggested that our very language structure lends itself to creating a climate for living with regret.  It focuses attention away from the moment and returns us to the past or projects us into the future, filling us with "If onlys" that eat away at the human spirit.

I think of the numerous "If only" statements I have heard throughout my life:

- If only I got those brakes checked, I wouldn't have had the crash.
-If only I had studied Computer Technology instead of History, I could be rich by now. 
-If only I had married my first girlfriend, I might not have gotten divorced.
-If only I had taken better care of myself when I was young, I might not be so frail in old age.
-If only I had remembered to turn off the iron, my house would not have caught on fire.

Upon reflection, I tend to agree wholeheartedly with Phuch Tran's Vietnamese dad. It actually is pretty "stupid" to expend energy on and pay so much attention to something that didn't happen. 

I think we can look at our past and perhaps be sorry for some of the mistakes we have made, vowing to make amends in the future. I also think that we can look to the future and envision new and fresh  possibilities. However, I see absolutely no value in living with regret over what never happened but "might" have been. 

I have decided to watch my language more closely, and be more careful about how I use those nasty little subjunctives.  

There is a popular phrase that reflects a Buddhist way of thinking. I use it all the time.

It is what is

So, as best as I can, I try to live "mindfully" in the moment, awake to the wonderful unfolding of the "here and now." 

No regrets!

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