Dreamers and visionaries

By Nellie Haddad



Nellie Haddad
Peg Skorpinski photo

13 March 2002 | Few things reveal who we are and what we value more than the way we finish the phrase, “if only.” “If only” assumes impossibility; “what if” presupposes potential.

Think of “If only” as the “B” side to “What if” — something like whatever might be on the other side of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” He asks us in that song to envision a different way of being. He asks, “What if” there were no retribution, “What if” there was peace?” “If only” and “What if” distinctly divide the wishers from the doers, the dreamers from the visionaries. “If only” looks back. “If only” I had married him instead; “if only” I had been there at the right moment to get that parking space, to land that job, to meet that person; “if only” I had made that choice, or hadn’t made this choice. Those who entertain the phrase harbor illusion and regret. When we are being generous, we call this wistfulness. When “if only” looks back, it is passive, powerless, impotent. “What if” looks forward, forming a vision that is, in its essence, dynamic.

Unless — unless, “if only” is the first of a tentative step into an uncertain, but potentially rich world of imaginings. “What would it be like to fly? If only I could.” This exploration of possibilities, for instance — “if only man could travel through the universe” —readily leads us to start: “What if man could land on the moon? What about Mars?” Often, ‘if only” does not lead us out of the muddy past we find ourselves stuck in, but it can be the dream that leads us to the vision that lends inevitability to hopes that are almost palpable.

What does it mean to have vision? How is it different from having dreams? And what’s at stake in the distinction? When we find ourselves in the midst of the rubble and ashes of what we thought was our life, when we look around and wonder what can be recovered and what we have the strength to erect, we can do one of two things. We can sit in the middle of the destruction and ask ourselves what we might have done differently, how this or that circumstance, altered only slightly, would have made all the difference, or we can wander about and imagine the new beginning that will redefine us and stretch who we thought we could be.

We awake from our dreams to the world we left behind as we slept, with the residue of “if only” still in the corners of our heavy eyes. But we return from visions clear-eyed, having seen the “what if” our world is transformed by what we understand is possible. And ultimately, that’s what is at stake in the distinction between the two phrases: whether we awake to the world as we left it, or whether we strive to transcend what has been, turning to see what could be.


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