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Seizing the opportunity

Posted on: 6th February 2014 | Category: Message from the Headmistress

If only: the two saddest words in the English language.

In our vision for aspiration, leadership and above all a happy and fulfilled life in which our girls feel secure in who they are, we want above all for them to avoid regret for missed opportunity. That missed opportunity is characterised by those two words: ‘if only’.

In what is still a relatively new year, I would like to advocate two things. First, we decide to accept ourselves, to be happy with who we are; and secondly we give up the concept of “if only”, so that we really live the year. Let’s think about the “if only” syndrome.

First of all, wishes that can’t come true: if only I were someone quite different; tall/thin/glamorous/clever/musical/sporty/or could win the Lottery.  It’s fine if you recognise these wishes as just daydreams and don’t take them seriously; but if they start to take on real meaning, you’re in trouble!

If only things were different. You want the situation in which you are made different.  For example, your parents: arguing or ill or divorced or moving the family to somewhere miles from all your friends: Your siblings: they are impossible! If only you were an only child.  If only you had a brother or sister.

These are things over which you have no control or choice. When my daughter was very small, I watched her trying to put on her shoes.  Like many two year olds she was finding it difficult. I said, “You’ve got your shoes on the wrong feet”. Puzzled, she looked at them and then at me and said, “They’re the only feet I’ve got.” 

That has stayed in my mind as a really important concept: the only feet I’ve got.  How many people use this “only feet” situation as an excuse:  I’ve always been lazy, I’m made that way; I always leave things till the last minute, I can’t do anything unless I’m under pressure.  Or they blame family circumstances or background or anything else for their apparent inability to change.  But part of the growing up process is to develop strategies for coping with the fixed situation. Some people never grow up enough, but most seek, and accept, help – from a friend, a teacher, a priest, a doctor, a counsellor: someone who can work with you to enable you to handle positively what you can’t change. Part of growing into a mature adult is learning to develop strategies for coping with a situation which itself is completely fixed and inflexible. You cannot change it, but you can find ways of living with it, tolerating it, instead of wearing yourself out in a hostile frenzy or lapsing into the permanently unattractive state of self-indulgent complaint. And there are many things which, with help, you can change. Character is not fixed. Every human being is capable of change if they choose.

If only: then there are the opportunities you may have missed. These come in two categories. What religions call sins of commission, the things you have done wrong, sins you have committed, and sins of omission, which are good things you’ve omitted to do. The sins of commission are the ones where you wish you could have that bit of your life again, because you know you’d do things differently or better. These are useful, if you don’t let them eat you up, because they protect you from repeating the same mistake.

More important I think are the sins of omission, those wasted opportunities.

If only I had told my mother how much I really loved her:

If only I had put myself out to listen to my brother instead of rejecting him:

If only I had made up with my friend instead of bearing a grudge.

These are the “if only” times we find it hard to forgive ourselves for.

So think again about these two words, “if only”. If those words are born of resentment, bitterness or envy, they can be the saddest in the language.  It is so important for us not to allow ourselves to say that.  In 2014, don’t look back, look forward. Grasp the opportunities when they come. Don’t waste time unproductively wishing things were different. Find ways of enjoying them as they are. Never put aside an opportunity to heal a quarrel or to improve a relationship. There is an old saying, never let the sun go down on your anger. I think it’s worth keeping in mind. Never go to sleep while you remain angry with someone you love.

We have only one life. Let’s try and live it in all its fullness, not wasting our days wishing fruitlessly for what might have been.


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