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The Lies We Learn In Our Youth
by [?]

The world for a great many years has accepted the dictum of the poet, that–

Of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: It might have been.

Even those people who refused to accept the rhyme have accepted the reason. But the fact is that the reason of this copybook couplet is as bad as the rhyme. It would be much nearer the truth to say that of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: He’s succeeded again. Here, too, the rhyme may be questioned, but the reason is sound. An entirely successful man is the most pitiful object in the universe. Not only has he nothing to look forward to, but he has nothing to look back upon. Having no regrets, no shadows, in his life, he has no chiaroscuro, no depth, no solidity in his picture. It is painted in the flat. “Regret,” says George Moore, to change the figure a little, “is like a mountain top from which we survey our dead life, a mountain top on which we pause and ponder.” He has no point of view, then, either. So after all the words, “It might have been,” do bear a sadness about them in his case; his life might have been a success if it had only been a failure. “It might have been” thus becomes sad when it reflects back upon itself, when it means there might have been a might have been but there was only a was. So life whirls into paradox!

Let any man in honesty retire into the solitude of his soul and reflect on his joys that might have been and those that were, and let him then answer whether any of his realizations were the equal of his anticipations. Therefore, if he had achieved the anticipated but lost delights which form the burden of his “Might have been,” they, too, would have been as ashes in the mouth. The truth is that the essence of delight is in the anticipation, the best of life is the vision, not the reality. It is pathetic not to have entertained the vision, but more pathetic, perhaps, to have attained it. Wasn’t it Oscar Wilde who said that there is only one thing more tragic than failure–success?

Did our regretful poet dream at twenty-one of being the perfect lover? In his dreams he was the perfect lover, then. Yet actually what was he? What was she? What was their courtship, their marriage? You, prosy, contented, forty and forgetful, by your prosy hearth or shaking down the furnace fire, while the children are being put to bed, you dare to call “It might have been” the saddest words of tongue or pen? Those now almost forgotten dreams of what might have been are the best you ever were. Remember them as often as you can, as bitterly, as happily, for your soul’s salvation. Without them you are the lowest of God’s creatures, a mere married man.

Or take the case of Maud Muller herself, and her judge. We learn that the judge–

Wedded a wife of richest dower,
Who lived for fashion, as he for power.

Maud, on the other hand,–

Wedded a man unlearned and poor,
And many children played round her door.

Probably in both cases this was for the best. Only the wildest sentimentalist could in seriousness urge that Maud would have made a good wife for the judge. Being a man who “lived for power,” the probable unpresentableness of Maud in a town house would have been a constant thorn in his flesh. She could not appear barefooted at his receptions, and the feet that have gone bare through an agricultural girlhood do not readily adapt themselves to the size of shoe which urban fashion dictates. Moreover, the vague yearnings of a young girl for an alliance with a handsome stranger above her station, do not fit her to speak the speech and think the thoughts and meet the social demands of that station. No, Maud would have been a constant thorn in the judge’s side. Summer sunshine, the smell of hay, a drink of cold water, a pretty, barefoot girl–the mood is compounded. An uneducated farmer’s daughter for a wife–the reality is accomplished.