What if?

During yesterday’s church services The Rev. Deborah Meister asked the parishioners at St. Alban’s to close their eyes and imagine what they’d do if they knew time was short.  By the end of the exercise we were asked, “So what’s stopping you?”  “Lot’s of things,” I thought to myself.

Later in the day I remembered being in my mid to late twenties and facing a hard decision.  I had learned to weld and fabricate steel working for an architectural iron company in Cincinnati and at the time was a foreman at a blacksmith’s shop in Louisville. I wanted to open my own business but was very soon to become a father and was worried about what failing might mean.  So I called my Dad.

I told my father about the decision I was trying to make and he told me to sit tight – that he was on his way.  The next day he pulled up in our driveway in a Honda Del Sol, having driven 10 hours from South Carolina to New Albany, Indiana. 

At dinner that night my father asked me a few questions about my dilemma.  I explained my anxieties and with an acknowledging nod he asked if he could share a story.  He told me about a time when while working for Proctor and Gamble he was asked by a small restaurant chain to design a laundry system so that they could wash employee uniforms at franchise locations rather than using private contractors.  After researching the issues my father designed a laundry system utilizing American made washers and dryers, even suggesting that polyester uniforms presented the best option for efficient washing and quick “wrinkle free” drying time.

Eventually my Dad was informed that although the company had decided to utilize off-site laundry facilities he, in lieu of his proposal, was being offered a partnership in the company.  The cost of the partnership was, strangely enough, the exact amount of savings that my Dad had at the time – the endeavor would cost him everything he had and there were kids at home and more on the way.  Worried about what failure might mean, Dad said, he declined the offer.  Then, in a pause and gaze typical of my father, a man who said more with his eyes than his words, John C. Quigley looked at me and said, “The name of that company is McDonald’s.”

The moral of this story, as they say, came in what my Dad said next.  “Jimmy, I have never lived my life as a ‘What if?” man…”  The beauty of my father’s wisdom was that he was not telling me what to do but rather teaching me about regret – about the perils of asking oneself, “What if?’   It’s the best advice I have ever gotten.  Poet Mary Oliver, I think, would agree:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

In memory of a life without regret:

fripp 2010 016

Happy Monday

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5 Responses to What if?

  1. Carlyle Gill says:

    Mary Oliver is my all time favorite poet. Have you read “When Death Comes”? And then there is that great one about the blue iris. I have heard wonderful things about your ministry among the good people of St. Alban’s.

  2. Anne-Louise Oliphant says:

    This Mary Oliver poem always pierces my heart. I often pray to be relieved of vain regrets, the bitter ones that weigh me down and stifle growth. The “woulda coulda shouldas”

    Note to Carlyle: you heard right!!

  3. Jo says:

    Jim, you were blessed with a wise and loving father. Just the fact that he got in the car and drove to be with you in your decision-making is profound.
    I would love to hear what other parishioners thought about with that sermon-challenge. I didn’t even ponder; I immediately mentally gathered the people I love most around me on a porch in a much-loved family place, that was what I wanted to do. So I felt confused when Deborah listed activities that we might have considered, including asking for and offering forgiveness, healing relationships…. In thinking about that challenge, I rationalized that my reaction reflected thinking that if my years of work at a couple of areas hadn’t borne fruit, two more days wasn’t going to make a difference, and better to spend my final hours with drenching love. But I don’t know, Would love to hear from others.

  4. Linda V says:

    Jim, thank you for this wonderful “cup” and the poem. I do believe I wore one of those polyester uniforms a few decades ago…

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