Holding Back

Sleep visited me last night, but only during brief encounters. I waited for what seemed like hours before I fell asleep, only to awaken minutes after beginning to doze. Each subsequent course of sleep and waking followed a similar short cycle. Finally, around 4:45, I gave up on getting a “good night’s sleep.” I already regret that I was unable to get to sleep quickly and sleep soundly; later, when the day demands my energy, my regret may blossom into full-fledged bitterness. As I returned to the first paragraph of what I had written this morning, I realized my writing sprang forth from an unusual insomnia. If I had dreams last night, they have long since turned to vapor, leaving empty my memories of my sleep state. I could have been dead during the few hours of “sleep” I got last night. I might have unknowingly experienced what death will be like. Just dream-free unconsciousness that cannot be replaced by consciousness. Perpetual nothingness, unaware of the disintegration or incineration of the body and everything in it. The thought is not grisly or unpleasant; it is just interesting. Intriguing.


Grave mistakes can be impossible to correct. Or, rather, they can be so painfully difficult to correct that they seem impossible to undo. And the consequences of reversing mistakes can be nearly as devastating as realizing, too late, the mistakes were made. Avoiding decisions that can carry with them enormous gravitas is probably the easiest and least painful route. But failing to make them leave lifelong “what if” questions unanswered. Those dangling questions, impossible to answer after the fact, exist whether or not the decisions or mistakes were made. Either way, one decision or another was left unmade; one can never know whether the decision made or the one left to dangle in perpetuity was the mistake. The outcome of either one can feel like the consequence of a mistake. There’s a phrase to describe that dilemma: “Damned if you do, damned if  you don’t.”

What if I had taken that job? Or what if I had rejected the job offer? What if I had asked her to marry me? What if I had turned down that promotion? What if I had embraced her overtures? What if I had completed graduate school? What if I hadn’t had the operation? What if I had dropped out of high school? What if I had been more diligent in my studies? What if I had pursued veterinary medicine? What if I had joined the Peace Corps? What if I had fled to Canada? What if I had joined the Air Force? What if I had burned my draft card? What if…?

Those questions are the tip of the iceberg; millions more follow endlessly on their heels. The consequences of actions not taken or decisions not made are impossible to know. Too many variables we cannot anticipate can intervene—or not—to make forecasting the future a reliable endeavor. But almost all of us do it. We worry, after the fact when it’s too late to change things, about actions taken or not taken. What if things had been different? What if???!!! You have no way of knowing, so worry is a waste of time. Such an easy admonition, but such a difficult notion to adopt as a component of one’s point of view.


Between too much and too little is an amount that is “just right.” The concept applies to cream in one’s coffee, anger betrayed in one’s tone of voice, and honesty about one’s desires for a person married to someone else.  Wait! That last one sounds dangerous and contrary to the ethics/morals drilled into us from the time we were children. Explain, please. Just as any amount of cream in my coffee may be too much, so can even a sliver of extra-marital desire be unforgiveable. But, like so many other matters as we slide through life, judgments about even the most sensitive issues are contextual. Context can explain, and in some cases excuse, behaviors and/or thoughts outside the sphere of what we generally consider appropriate. Excessive levels of anger in one’s voice might be permissible in circumstances in which one’s offspring are found to be dealing in potentially lethal drugs. But even in the context of dealing dangerous drugs, anger might be entirely inappropriate if another aspects of the context also involves the child feeling neglected and potentially suicidal. And, back to that matter that tends to raise hackles, even a degree of lusting after someone else’s spouse can be “just right” if the object of desire is trapped in a deeply unsatisfactory marriage in which the partners have been separated for years. In all probability, there are probably dozens…maybe hundreds or more…of contextual factors that would readily excuse various levels of concupiscence, labelling them “just right” for the circumstances. This is hypothetical, of course. But, as I think back on people I have known over the years, it is not far from reality. Almost anything we label “too” something—whether too little or too much compassion or too little or too much sugar—is valid only in a specific set of contexts. Yet, rather than arbitrarily accepting or rejecting the appropriateness of labeling or mislabeling, we make micro-assessments about the conditions surrounding decisions. We take into account a person’s diabetes (or lack thereof) when making judgments about the amount of sugar in her tea that is “just right” for her. We make that judgment by taking into account, too, whether she has just eaten four glazed donuts or three stalks of celery. Our judgements may be wrong, but they are not random; we incorporate—often unconsciously—matters that factor into the appropriateness of her behaviors. My bottom line here is this: getting to what is the “right amount” of anything, whether behaviors or thoughts or combinations thereof, is complex and contextual. There is little or no black and white in judgments of what is right or wrong. At the very least, circumstances can excuse or, at the very least, explain decisions that might seem wrong on the surface. But maintaining the sense of fairness required to refrain from being judgmental is a monumental task. It is a task worth undertaking, though. In my opinion. If nothing else, the task exercises and strengthens one’s ability to feel and exhibit compassion.


Youth smiles without any reason. It is one of its chiefest charms.

~ Thomas Gray ~


I watch. I observe. I take in what goes on around me. I try to avoid immediacy in making decisions unless immediacy is absolutely required. I want time to think and assess situations. There are times, of course, in which immediate decisions or judgments must be made. More often, though, we allow ourselves to be bullied into accepting the need for immediacy when no such need exists; it is a matter of urgency only in the minds of people who have convinced themselves that a decision cannot wait. Too often, we blindly and without challenge accept the bullying behavior. We adopt it, too, as if failing to make instant decisions will yield catastrophic results. In reality, delaying decisions—until all the facts are in and have been given adequate consideration—rarely leads to cataclysmic outcomes. But perhaps I argue for deliberative decision-making not because it is rational, but because it is my preferred style. Maybe I am attempting to justify my preferences, as if they are the only logical ones. Is it possible, I ask myself, that “deliberative decision-making” is my excuse for wasting time? Because, perhaps, I may believe that delaying decisions reduces the likelihood that, once made, the decision will be a bad one?

Sometimes, I view the world through two lenses of a microscope; one view is massively enlarged and the other is dramatically reduced. The larger image give clarity, but to a much smaller section of the world. The smaller image encompasses a much broader section of the world, but not in such fine detail. I wonder, is there a midpoint that would reduce the need to examine the world from two different perspectives? And I answer: sometimes.


Today is Saturday. NAACP meeting. Game night. A day to show off my new eyeglasses. A day to combine business with pleasure. Neither of which is what it pretends to be. Business is not. And pleasure is just a hologram; an imaginary image that looks markedly different from my definition of pleasure. But those are old images; pictures from my youth. Youth is such a malleable time. A time in which actual experiences are replaced by undeveloped imaginations.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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