If Only

“If Only” is the name of a specter that has haunted each of us. “If only I would have stayed in school.” “If only I studied a little harder.” “If only … if only … if only.” Abel Kiviat set the world record for 1500 meters three times in fifteen days in 1912. In Norway, at the finals for the 1500 meters later that summer, Kiviat was one of seven Americans in the final event. He was the favorite and led in the homestretch. Kiviat roared across the finish line, but not before a lone Englishman came out of nowhere to beat him by one-tenth of a second. For the first time in history, the race was so close it had to be decided by reviewing a photograph.

Psychologists call the If Onlys “Contra Factuals.” They come in two flavors. Downward Contra Factuals often result in feelings of gratitude (“I’m sorry the car was destroyed, but it could have been worse! Thank God I was wearing my seatbelt.”) Upward Contra Factuals are haunted by regrets: If Only.

Consider again the Olympics of 1912. Three medals were awarded in the 1500-meter race. Think about how each competitor felt. It’s easy to imagine the joy Arnold Jackson felt. He was the winner of what sportswriters call “the greatest race ever.” Jackson had no reason to think he had a chance. He wasn’t even a representative of his country. (Private citizens were allowed to compete in those days.) For training, Jackson walked and played golf! His win was fantastic. Jackson went on to become one of the greatest generals of the First World War. Sadly, after being wounded three times, he could never run again, but no one could take away his Olympic medal. He was a winner!

What about the third-place competitor – the winner of the bronze medal? Norman Tabor was grateful to receive any medal at the Olympics (Downward Contra Factuals). The competition was that fierce. Later, in 1915, Tabor went on to break the twenty-year-old world record for running the mile.

What about Abel Kiviat, who won the silver medal, but lost the gold medal by only one-tenth of a second? In 1995 he was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times 83 years after the event. He laughed and admitted, “I wake up sometimes and say, ‘What the heck happened to me?’ It’s like a nightmare.” He was haunted by the If Only demon until his dying days.

We all have failures and disappointments. Re-read the story of Jesus, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, making breakfast for Peter and the other disciples after the resurrection (John 21). Do you remember Peter denying Jesus with an oath at the time Jesus needed the big fisherman most? Don’t you know Peter was haunted by If Only? Jesus ended that pity party with the words “Feed my sheep!” and “Tend my lambs.”Part of the glory of Christ is our freedom from If Only. Christians can march boldly into the future because we have been freed from the tyranny of the past.

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