Family & Education

The Big Little Word: Living Life Using the ‘If … Then’ Method

This two-letter conjunction spells the difference between victory and defeat
BY Jeff Minick TIMEAugust 18, 2022 PRINT


Now there’s a trim welterweight of a word that can put you on the canvas with a single punch, or let you step from the ring with your hands raised in triumph.

“I’ve always wished I stepped off that train,” says Bruce in Daniel Pink’s book “The Power of Regret.” Bruce is remembering his chance encounter years earlier with a young woman he’d met on a train in Europe. He was smitten with her that evening, and possibly she with him, but Bruce not only let that lovely get away, he neglected to ask for her address.

Pink calls this a “boldness regret”: “If only I’d taken that risk.”

Probably most of us have felt the shadows cast by the dark cloud of this conjunction. “If only I’d bought a house before the prices went through the ceiling, I’d be sitting pretty,” a friend says. (Hindsight is a bummer.) “If I’d studied in college instead of partying,” thinks another, “I could have gone to medical school.”

“You pays your money and you takes your choice,” as the old saying goes.

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride” is another antique. My mom sometimes tossed that one my way when, as a boy, I would wish for the rain to stop, or that my friend Allen could come over and play.

Here we can extend that “if” of wishes to adulthood and find that it still packs a powerful uppercut. “If I could just get away from this place, everything would change,” a man says. (The environment would change, for better or for worse, but he’d still be dragging along that inescapable shadow: the self.) “If I had the money, I could turn that place into a barbecue joint that would knock the socks off this town,” a man once told me of a closed, run-down restaurant building in a great location. (“If wishes were horses …”)

Eugene O’Neill devoted an entire play, “The Iceman Cometh,” to this dark side of empty wishes. The alcoholic wastrels in Harry Hope’s saloon live on pipe dreams and promises, and lift their glasses to the great god If.

Which, thankfully, brings us to the brighter side of this two-letter word.

There are occasions when the “If … then” formula drenches us in sunshine rather than rain. This occurs when we practice that equation with intention, hoping to exchange a present circumstance for a better future.

A personal instance: If I walk half an hour a day, as my doctor has instructed me, then my overall health will improve.

We all face situations where this is the case, where we can take hold of the possibilities embedded in “if,” put them into action, and make them a reality.

Recently, for instance, it was mid-afternoon in the coffee shop I frequent, and the place was deserted. The young barista at the counter, whom I only then realized was married, was reading “The Empowered Wife: Six Surprising Secrets for Attracting Your Husband’s Time, Attention, and Affection.”

I looked the book up online and found that it asks the question: “Can a wife singlehandedly bring a boring or broken marriage back to life?”

Here the “if … then” formula, as the sweet barista is discovering, involves tactics that she can put into action to revive love in her marriage.

Delayed gratification nearly always accompanies this “If … then” scenario.

“If I finish up my physics homework,” thinks a high school kid, “then I can relax and have fun talking to friends.” “If I buy a load of groceries today,” a frugal wife tells her husband, “then I’ll save money when the prices go up again next month.”

In all these cases, “if” we make our plans and execute them, “then” our dreams, large or small, can come true.

And that’s the “If … then” recipe for a good life.

Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick lives and writes in Front Royal, Virginia. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.”
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