You Can't Change the Past

Rick Broadaway

   The cliché has it that life is a journey through time, and so it is. But it is a journey of no return. We are all holding one-way tickets on the Time Travel Express, heading inexorably into the future. If Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is correct, then we may even be able to move forward faster into the future. (However, practically speaking, this would be very hard to achieve since it requires that one travel at or near the speed of light.) But, travel into the past, for better or worse, remains not only a practical but also a theoretical impossibility, which means that we humans are stuck with the history we make for ourselves. That is why our language has so many ways of expressing regrets about past actions. Here are a few expressions that you can use when you find yourself regretting something you did.

Expression 1: I wish I had/hadn’t (past participle of verb)…
Ex. I wish I had studied English harder in high school.
Ex. I wish I hadn’t started smoking.

Expression 2: I should/shouldn’t have (past participle)…
Ex. I should have warned him it was dangerous.
Ex. I shouldn’t have eaten that huge meal.

Expression 3: If I had only (past participle)…!
Ex. If I had only brought an umbrella! (Then I wouldn’t have gotten wet in the rain.)
Ex. If I had only looked both ways before crossing the street! (Then I would not have been hit by a car.)
   * "If only I had…!" is also acceptable.

   Regret is a very personal emotion, and that is why all of these examples use the personal pronoun “I” for the subject of the sentence. A group of individuals, such as a class, a company, or even a country, may all feel regret about something, but they do so individually. If one of the individuals in the group takes it upon himself or herself to speak as a representative of the group, then that individual is presuming a feeling on behalf of the others.

Ex. I wish we had never fought that terrible war!
Ex. If only we (Japanese people) hadn’t attacked Pearl Harbor!
Ex. We (American people) shouldn’t have dropped the atomic bombs on Japan.

   These expressions can also take on second or third-person subject pronouns; in this case, the regret is projected onto another person and expressed as a sympathetic suggestion or mild admonition rather than as an emotive declaration.

Ex. I wish she had chosen someone different for a boyfriend.
Ex. You should have studied harder for the test.
Ex. If only they had obeyed the law! (Then they would not be in prison.)

   Fortunately, we can learn from our past mistakes and missteps to create opportunities for making the right decisions and taking the right actions in the future. And that is why there are so many expressions preceded by the phrase "from now on."

Expression 4: I’d better/better not (infinitive verb)…
Ex. From now on I’d better take care of my health.
Ex. From now on I’d better not stay up too late.

Expression 5: I’m going to/not going to (infinitive verb)…
Ex. From now on I’m going to try harder.
Ex. From now on I’m not going to lose my temper.

Expression 6: I will (infinitive verb)…
Ex. From now on I will attend every class.
Ex. From now on I will not miss a test.

   These three expressions are roughly equivalent in meaning within this context. All of the speakers in the examples above seem to realize that they have done something wrong in the past (or perhaps neglected to do something right) and so, having learned their lesson, they express their intention to change their behavior in the future. (Haven’t we all been in this situation?) However, the speakers using Expression 4 seem less determined than those using Expressions 5 and 6. Expression 6 shows the greatest determination, which reminds us that the word "will" as a noun indicates that part of a person’s character with which one carries out one’s intentions in the future. For example, we can speak of a person with a "strong will" or a "weak will;" we can describe a child as being "willful;" and we can describe someone as being "willing" or "unwilling" to cooperate.
   Our will is what we use to project our lives into the future, avoiding potential regrets as we can. It is the engine that powers this time machine we call the human body as it traces its path across history.

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