What Might Have Been

What Might Have Been

In 1867 the popular American poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a tragic poem called “Maud Miller.”  Most people have not heard of it, but many are familiar with two famous lines from its final stanza.  The poem is about a young woman named Maud who, while working in the fields one day, notices a handsome young judge on horseback.  She offers him a drink of water, which he gratefully accepts—and both of them are strangely affected by their brief encounter.  Maud is attracted to the judge, and daydreams about marrying him, which would allow her to move to the city and live as the wife of a wealthy and important man.  At the same time, the judge realizes he is attracted to Maud; he’s tired of his career, and fantasizes about marrying a friendly, compassionate woman like her and enjoying the slower pace of country life.  Both Maud and the judge suspect they’d be perfect for each other—but neither acknowledges this, as they’re from different social and economic classes, and the expectations of society keep them from following their hearts.  They go their separate ways, never to see each other again; instead, Maud and the judge both end up marrying the wrong person—someone who causes them much heartbreak and regret.  That’s why John Greenleaf Whittier ended his sorrowful poem with the famous warning, “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these:  ‘It might have been!’” (Bausch, Once Upon A Gospel, p. 307).  Regret can be a powerful and painful emotion in many different areas of life:  relationships, wasted opportunities, bad career decisions, undeveloped talents, and so on.  The worst regrets of all, however, are those which last for eternity—namely, hearing Christ’s invitation to follow Him, and failing or refusing to respond.  Jesus asks us to devote our lives to being His disciples—and our choice will turn out to be either our greatest regret, or our greatest joy.

Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) is a wonderful example of someone who heard Christ’s call, and who acted upon it in an immediate and wholehearted way.  He didn’t care about his reputation; he wasn’t worried about what people would say, and he wasn’t concerned about the radical change discipleship would mean for his life.  Zacchaeus somehow knew he might never again have a chance at salvation, and that if he let it pass by, he’d spend the rest of his life regretting it.  He seized the moment and made lavish restitution for his sins, and Jesus thereupon praised him as a true descendant of Abraham.  As the reading from the Book of Wisdom (11:22-12:2) says, God wants sinners to abandon their wickedness and believe in Him; in His mercy, He overlooks people’s sins so that they might repent.  The Lord does not want any of His children to be filled with regrets for all eternity; it breaks His heart when damned persons in hell despairingly reproach themselves by crying out “If only I had accepted the grace of repentance when it was offered!”  Instead, as St. Paul says in his Letter to the Thessalonians (2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2), it is God’s will that the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in us, and that, through acceptance of divine grace, we may be made worthy of His calling—as was the case with Zacchaeus.

There are a number of quotations on the subject of “regret.”  Some are famous, such as the dying statement of Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale:  “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”  Some are silly, such as actor Woody Allen’s lament “My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.”  Some quotes offer practical advice, such as Ambrose Bierce’s words “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”  Some quotes on regret are profound, such as the words of former First Lady Barbara Bush:  “At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict, or not closing one more [business] deal; you will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent.”  However, the quote which best serves our purpose here comes from the late philosopher and newspaper columnist Sydney J. Harris.  He once wrote, “Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable”—in other words, we can apologize for and learn from the mistakes we’ve made and the sins we’ve committed, but we’ll never get back the time and opportunities we’ve wasted.  That’s why the example of Zacchaeus is so important and inspiring; instead of spending his old age kicking himself for not responding to Jesus and sincerely repenting of his sins when he had the chance, he allowed the course of his life to be forever changed—taking him in the direction of holiness and eternal happiness.

Psalm 95 says, “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.”  It’s unfortunately part of our human nature to procrastinate or to hesitate when we’re inspired to do something holy or noble or important. This can lead to unnecessary problems and inconveniences in regard to our worldly opportunities and responsibilities; far worse, however, are the regrets we’ll feel on our deathbeds if we realize God had been calling us to a deeper relationship with Him throughout our lives, but we had always been too busy or distracted or uninterested.  If we’re not taking our faith seriously, today is the day to begin changing that.  If we’ve become too comfortable with our faults and human weaknesses, today is the day to ask God for the grace to overcome them.  If we’ve fallen out of the habit of regular prayer and Bible reading, today is the day to readjust our schedules and make them a priority.  If we’ve become materialistic or too concerned about money, today is the day to surrender our finances to the Lord by beginning the practice of tithing.  If we’ve become judgmental or too critical of others, today is the day to beg God for the grace of genuine repentance.  If we’ve become bored or uninterested in the Mass, today is the day to ask Jesus to give us a deeper awareness and experience of His presence.  If we’ve become spiritually lazy or complacent, today is the day to ask the Holy Spirit to set our hearts on fire.

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these:  It might have been!”  None of us want these words to be the summary of our lives, or the epitaph carved on our tombstone.  Instead, at the end of our lives, we want to hear these words from Jesus:  “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  Beginning today, we must renew our efforts to accept and use God’s grace and respond to His call—for only in this way our eternity will be free of regret and filled with rejoicing.

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper
  • I will say that when you start to change your life to conform to Jesus’ call all of the might haves will begin to fade. Replacing might haves with a done list heals the heart and makes the call finally answered more sweet.

  • I have found some consolation in an article I read that a good practice to atone for sins of omission is to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet each day. Not praying the chaplet is for me of more serious concern than it used to be.

  • So true! It’s the sins of omission that bother me the most, even after confessing them- the times I’ve missed an opportunity to help someone. No matter how hard I try, I never fail to surprise myself with how blind I can be sometimes in failing to meet the need of another.

  • Dear Fr. Joseph,
    This was a great article!! There are things you mentioned that I know I can change today to become closer with God. I teach Kindergarten in a Catholic school and we are learning about Zacchaeus this week. The children are enjoying the story.

    Thank you for all of your work as you help bring us closer to Christ!!