Monday, November 9, 2015

Might Have Been

 -in  my meditation garden -

An older man hooked up to a portable oxygen tank was shuffling along on his way out of church yesterday accompanied by his wife who was assisting him. I overheard their conversation as the wife angrily scolded her husband: “If you had taken better care of yourself when you were a young man you wouldn’t have all these health problems today.”

As I heard that conversation I was immediately reminded of a TED talk I heard a while back about living in a world of might have been. A very accomplished college professor, a native of Vietnam fluent in both English and Vietnamese was speaking about some of the major differences between the two languages and how our use of language forms and fashions the way in which we view the world.

He made the point that, unlike English, Vietnamese and other Asian languages do not have a “subjunctive” verb structure. On the surface this sounds like a pretty dry topic and to be honest I wasn’t even sure what a “subjunctive verb” is. I learned that a “subjunctive” is a verb used to express something that might have been but never actually happened. More importantly I learned what a significant difference the use of this one little verb makes in how people view their everyday lives.

In his TED talk the professor spoke of how he once tried to explain what a “subjunctive” means to his Vietnamese dad who had never been exposed to subjunctive verbs in his native language. He told him: Dad, in English we would say, ‘If it hadn’t rained, we would have gone to the beach.’ – that’s a subjunctive. To which the father replied: That’s kind of dumb isn’t it? Why do you want to talk about something that never happened?

The father’s response actually makes a lot of sense to me.

As I think about it, as an English speaker living in a Western culture I realize that we use an awful lot of subjunctive speech in our everyday language. We often talk about things that happened in the past but more than that we talk about what might have happened or not happened “if” we had done things differently- like the wife who tells her ailing husband that he would be healthy today if he had taken better care of himself when he was young.

When we live in this fantasy world of might have been we will always dwell in a place of regret,  disappointment, or guilt over lost opportunities: “If I went to college I might have been making lots more money today. If I had married the first love my life, I might have been much happier. If I had remembered to turn off the iron, my house might not have burned down.” – a might have been world is a pretty sad and frustrating place in which to live.

I actually think it would be very freeing to speak a language that didn’t have verbs that allow us to talk about what might have been if things had been different in the days gone by.  But of course we don’t have to speak a subjunctive-free language to move away from a might have been world - all we need to do is live in the world that “is.”

Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, once said:
The past is gone.
The future is not yet here.
If we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment,
we cannot be in touch with life.

When the old Vietnamese dad heard the explanation of what a “subjunctive” means, he told his son: That’s kind of dumb isn’t it? Why would you want to talk about something that never happened.

 I think he’s right - I thinks it is a kind of dumb to do that.


  1. Thank you. Very wise and astute words. It has made me realize just how much I have done this.

  2. Thank you for the article, I too think this way often, feeling sorry for things that didn't happen, perhaps its time to put a stop to it now.