June 16, 2017

Rear-View Optimism & the Danger of “If Only.”

I am always optimistic.

My problem is that I have two kinds of optimism. One is forward-looking, which is helpful, and one I call, “rear-view optimism,” which I consider to be a bad habit. I don’t feel alone in my rear-view optimism. In fact, it seems to be a pervasive hindrance for many, and one that needs to be addressed.

Rear-view optimism, as the name suggests, is the inclination to indulge in conceptual elaborations on how things would be “if only” we hadn’t done such and such. “Such and such” could be anything—a marriage we are not satisfied with, a financial decision gone bad, or a geographical move we now regret. Virtually any decision that we have made that we now regret making can have us thinking how great things would be if that decision had not been made.

Conceptual elaboration has become common vocabulary in discussions on meditation. Conceptual elaboration is both forward and backward looking and is simply the process of having a thought arise naked in the mind and then clothing it. The thought was fine while naked, but we got into trouble when we dressed it up.

The aim of meditation is to allow thought to run naked without clothing, to let thoughts rise and fall of their own accord. While we are totally aware of them, we do not interfere in any way. If we succeed, we are meditating. But, if thoughts entangle us, and we elaborate on any of them, we have lost our meditation.

The process of elaboration is particularly burdensome when it concerns the past, and whether we have an interest in meditation or not, it should be a concern and a habit to break.

Resurrecting a past decision we now regret making by thoughts of how much better things could be can only rest on an assumption, and assumptions never reflect reality. Our penchant for optimism has us thinking they do—like fortune-telling.

When I was about 10, my father suggested I join a kibbutz in Israel and learn to farm. His suggestion came with a promise to buy a farm for me when I returned. Sometimes, when I think of this offer, I wonder if I had made a mistake and how nice it would be to be settled on a farm in northern California, eating my own harvest, and making my own fresh cheese.

My picture, of course, is distorted because I could easily be on a farm like many others north of Los Angeles, that now, thanks to government water regulation, are barren wastelands with the farmers living on meager federal compensation. I never picture it this way because rear-view optimism is distorted and biased.

We all know of someone, perhaps many, who think they have wasted their best years with a partner that proved to be a burden rather than a support. Or, maybe the marriage worked out well, and they have lovely children and are still married, but a demon of doubt creeps in causing them to question how it would have been otherwise.

Had they remained single, might they have led a life to be envied in corporate America, fulfilled a modeling ambition, an acting career, a reclusive life as a monk or nun…whatever.

Musings are harmless and natural, but when musings become solidified through over-indulgence, they form themselves into assumptions that are given a corner in our minds that, if left unchecked, can consume it. Sometimes we see marriages fall apart because of this.

Regret always packs with it assumptions that things could have been better. What an interesting phenomenon of the human psyche this is!

The fact is, we only rarely think how much worse things could have been. Regret-associated assumptions are always positive and the propensity for them to be so is a complete fiction that can cause us to have a distorted view of our past. We all have regrets—that is always going to be part of our growing experience as human beings—but what we do with those regrets, we can and should take control of.

The best way to keep regrets from getting out of hand is learning to refrain from all conceptual elaborations concerning the past.

The renowned Chinese translator, Seng Chao, who worked under the Indian master Kumarajiva, translating Buddhist texts in the Chinese court said, “Looking at what had been once, in the place where once it had been, one notices that it has never failed to be once.”

We all can learn to let our past rest in peace where it belongs, and cultivate the mental discipline, through meditation or otherwise, that enables us to do so.


Author: Richard Josephson
Image: Simon Law/Flickr
Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Supervising Editor 1: Leah Sugerman 
Supervising Editor 2: Catherine Monkman

Read 1 Comment and Reply

Read 1 comment and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Richard Josephson