I love great movie lines, and one that I’ll never forget is from the classic film On the Waterfront. It was spoken by has-been pugilist Terry Mallow (Marlon Brando), who said to his brother, Charley Malloy (Rod Steiger), “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.” Terry was expressing his regret over having taken a dive in a big fight in exchange for a payoff his brother had arranged, which led him down the path to obscurity.
That was probably the first time I ever thought about the coulda-woulda-shoulda syndrome that haunts each of us at one time or another. Unfortunately, it’s a mental state that manufactures only regret and misery.
Joseph Campbell’s antidote to such a mental state was telling: “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” The life we planned versus the life that is waiting for us … so logical … so practical … so self-evident … but so rarely practiced.
Brando’s character was pretty hopeless, but the fact remains that he had it within his power to refuse to throw the big fight by exercising dignity, moral courage, and self-discipline. That one error in judgment is what I have so often referred to as The Big Mistake, the kind of mistake that can be fatal to a person’s financial aspirations, health, and happiness. In many cases, it can even be life-ending. Learning through experience sounds like a good idea, but it doesn’t do you any good if you’re dead.
That said, I doubt that you’re a has-been fighter who has no options. When a person is down, it’s easy to believe that all options are closed to him, but that’s rarely the case. That’s why it’s a good idea to take inventory of yourself and your options on a daily basis and assess where you’re at in life — and what you have to do to get where you want to be.
I’m not talking about where you could have been had you done this or that right or not done this or that wrong, but where you actually are — right now, today, at this very moment. Forgetting about the life you dreamed of … the life that could have been had you made a handful of better decisions … and focusing on the life that is waiting for you is one of the nonnegotiable skills when it comes to happiness and success.
My mother lived to be 101, and today would have been her 107th birthday. She was an incredible woman who was a source of unending inspiration to me. She never complained about anything, including some things that were very difficult for her over the last third of her life.
She spent more than 20 years in a nursing home without a hint of hanging onto the past. The whole family was in awe of how happy she was in that nursing home, working in the gift shop for many years, playing cards with her newfound friends, and reading more books in a year than most people read in a lifetime.
Plans are a good thing to have, but we would all do well to recognize that Fate has a habit of interfering with even the best-laid plans. It’s noble to continue trying when things don’t work out, but it’s also wise not to resist the life “that is waiting for us,” the life that could very well turn out to be even better than the one we had planned if only we would give it a chance.
Happy birthday, Mom.