Unit One TEXT I Two Words to Avoid, Two to Remember Arthur Gordon 1Nothing in life is more exciting and rewarding than the sudden flash of insight that leaves you a changed person ? not only changed, but changed for the better. Such moments are rare, certainly, but they come to all of us. Sometimes from a book, a sermon, a line of poetry. Sometimes from a friend…. 2 That wintry afternoon in Manhattan, waiting in the little French restaurant, I was feeling frustrated and depressed. Because of several miscalculations on my part, a project of considerable importance in my life had fallen through. Even the prospect of seeing a dear friend (the Old Man, as I privately and affectionately thought of him) failed to cheer me as it usually did. I sat there frowning at the checkered tablecloth, chewing the bitter cud of hindsight. 3He came across the street, finally, muffled in his ancient overcoat, shapeless felt hat pulled down over his bald head, looking more like an energetic gnome than an eminent psychiatrist. His offices were nearby; I knew he had just left his last patient of the day. He was close to 80, but he still carried a full case load, still acted as director of a large foundation, still loved to escape to the golf course whenever he could. 4By the time he came over and sat beside me, the waiter had brought his invariable bottle of ale. I had not seen him for several months, but he seemed as indestructible as ever. “Well, young man,” he said without preliminary, “what’s troubling you?” 5I had long since ceased to be surprised at his perceptiveness. So I proceeded to tell him, at some length, just what was bothering me. With a kind of melancholy pride, I tried to be very honest. I blamed no one else for my disappointment, only myself. I analyzed the whole thing, all the bad judgments, the false moves. I went on for perhaps 15 minutes, while the Old Man sipped his ale in silence. 6When I finished, he put down his glass. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go back to my office.” 7“Your office? Did you forget something?” 8“No,” he said mildly. “I want your reaction to something. That’s all.” 9A chill rain was beginning to fall outside, but his office was warm and comfortable and familiar: book-lined walls, long leather couch, signed photograph of Sigmund Freud, tape recorder by the window. His secretary had gone home. We were alone. 10The Old Man took a tape from a flat cardboard box and fitted it onto the machine. “On this tape,” he said, “are three short recordings made by three persons who came to me for help. They are not identified, of course. I want you to listen to the recordings and see if you can pick out the two-word phrase that is the common denominator in all three cases.” He smiled. “Don’t look so puzzled. I have my reasons.” 11What the owners of the voices on the tape had in common, it seemed to me,
was unhappiness. The man who spoke first evidently had suffered some kind of business loss or failure; he berated himself for not having worked harder, for not having looked ahead. The woman who spoke next had never married because of a sense of obligation to her widowed mother; she recalled bitterly all the marital chances she had let go by. The third voice belonged to a mother whose teen-age son was in trouble with the police; she blamed herself endlessly. 12The Old Man switched off the machine and leaned back in his chair. “Six times in those recordings a phrase is used that’s full of subtle poison. Did you spot it? No? Well, perhaps that’s because you used it three times yourself down in the restaurant a little while ago.” He picked up the box that had held the tape and tossed it over to me. “There they are, right on the label. The two saddest words in any language.” 13I looked down. Printed neatly in red ink were the words: If only. 14“You’d be amazed,” said the Old Man, “if you knew how many thousands of times I’ve sat in this chair and listened to woeful sentences beginning with those two words. ‘If only,’ they say to me, ‘I had done it differently ? or not done it at all. If only I hadn’t lost my temper, said the cruel thing, made that dishonest move, told that foolish lie. If only I had been wiser, or more unselfish, or more self-controlled.’ They go on and on until I stop them. Sometimes I make them listen to the recordings you just heard. ‘If only,’ I say to them, ‘you’d stop saying if only, we might begin to get somewhere!’” 15The Old Man stretched out his legs. “The trouble with ‘if only,’” he said, “is that it doesn’t change anything. It keeps the person facing the wrong way ? backward instead of forward. It wastes time. In the end, if you let it become a habit, it can become a real roadblock, an excuse for not trying any more. 16“Now take your own case: your plans didn’t work out. Why? Because you made certain mistakes. Well, that’s all right: everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes are what we learn from. But when you were telling me about them, lamenting this, regretting that, you weren’t really learning from them.” 17“How do you know?” I said, a bit defensively. 18“Because,” said the Old Man, “you never got out of the past tense. Not once did you mention the future. And in a way-be honest, now! ?you were enjoying it. There’s a perverse streak in all of us that makes us like to hash over old mistakes. After all, when you relate the story of some disaster or disappointment that has happened to you, you’re still the chief character, still in the center of the stage.” 19I shook my head ruefully. “Well, what’s the remedy?” 20“Shift the focus,” said the Old Man promptly. “Change the key words and substitute a phrase that supplies lift instead of creating drag.” 21“Do you have such a phrase to recommend?” 22“Certainly. Strike out the words ‘if only’; substitute the phrase ‘next time.’” 23“Next time?” 24“That’s right. I’ve seen it work minor miracles right here in this room. As long as a patient keeps saying ‘if only’ to me, he’s in trouble. But when he looks me in the eye and says ‘next time,’ I know he’s on his way to overcoming his problem. It means he has decided to apply the lessons he has learned from his experience, however grim
or painful it may have been. It means he’s going to push aside the roadblock of regret, move forward, take action, resume living. Try it yourself. You’ll see.” 25My old friend stopped speaking. Outside, I could hear the rain whispering against the windowpane. I tried sliding one phrase out of my mind and replacing it with the other. It was fanciful, of course, but I could hear the new words lock into place with an audible click…. 26The Old Man stood up a bit stiffly. “Well, class dismissed. It has been good to see you, young man. Always is. Now, if you will help me find a taxi, I probably should be getting on home.” 27We came out of the building into the rainy night. I spotted a cruising cab and ran toward it, but another pedestrian was quicker. 28“My, my,” said the Old Man slyly. “If only we had come down ten seconds sooner, we’d have caught that cab, wouldn’t we?” 29I laughed and picked up the cue. “Next time I’ll run faster.” 30“That’s it,” cried the Old Man, pulling his absurd hat down around his ears. “That’s it exactly!” 31Another taxi slowed. I opened the door for him. He smiled and waved as it moved away. I never saw him again. A month later, he died of sudden heart attack, in full stride, so to speak. 32More than a year has passed since that rainy afternoon in Manhattan. But to this day, whenever I find myself thinking “if only”, I change it to “next time”. Then I wait for that almost-perceptible mental click. And when I hear it, I think of the Old Man. 33A small fragment of immortality, to be sure. But it’s the kind he would have wanted. From: James I. Brown, pp. 146-1
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Unit Two TEXT I The Fine Art of Putting Things Off Michael Demarest 1“Never put off till tomorrow,” exhorted Lord Chesterfield in 1749, “what you can do today.” That the elegant earl never got around to marrying his son’s mother and had a bad habit of keeping worthies like Dr. Johnson cooling their heels for hours in an anteroom attests to the fact that even the most well-intentioned men have been postponers ever. Quintus Fabius Maximus, one of the great Roman generals, was dubbed “Cunctator” (Delayer) for putting off battle until the last possible vinum break. Moses pleaded a speech defect to rationalize his reluctance to deliver Jehovah’s edict to Pharaoh. Hamlet, of course, raised procrastination to an art form. 2The world is probably about evenly divided between delayers and do-it-nowers. There are those who prepare their income taxes in February, prepay mortgages and serve precisely planned dinners at an ungodly 6:30 p.m. The other half dine happily on leftovers at 9 or 10, misplace bills and file for an extension of the income tax deadline. They seldom pay credit-card bills until the apocalyptic voice of Diners
threatens doom from Denver. They postpone, as Faustian encounters, visits to barbershop, dentist or doctor. 3Yet for all the trouble procrastination may incur, delay can often inspire and revive a creative soul. Jean Kerr, author of many successful novels and plays, says that she reads every soup-can and jam-jar label in her kitchen before settling down to her typewriter. Many a writer focuses on almost anything but his task-for example, on the Coast and Geodetic Survey of Maine’s Frenchman Bay and Bar Harbor, stimulating his imagination with names like Googins Ledge, Blunts Pond, Hio Hill and Burnt Porcupine, Long Porcupine, Sheep Porcupine and Bald Porcupine islands. 4From Cunctator’s day until this century, the art of postponement had been virtually a monopoly of the military (“Hurry up and wait”), diplomacy and the law. In former times, a British proconsul faced with a native uprising could comfortably ruminate about the situation with Singapore Sling in hand. Blessedly, he had no nattering Telex to order in machine guns and fresh troops. A.U.S. general as late as World War II could agree with his enemy counterpart to take a sporting day off, loot the villagers’ chickens and wine and go back to battle a day later. Lawyers are among the world’s most addicted postponers. According to Frank Nathan, a nonpostponing Beverly Hills insurance salesman, “The number of attorneys who die without a will is amazing.” 5Even where there is no will, there is a way. There is a difference, of course, between chronic procrastination and purposeful postponement, particularly in the higher echelons of business. Corporate dynamics encourage the caution that breeds delay, says Richard Manderbach, Bank of America group vice president. He notes that speedy action can be embarrassing or extremely costly. The data explosion fortifies those seeking excuses for inaction ? another report to be read, another authority to be consulted. “There is always,” says Manderbach, “a delicate edge between having enough information and too much.” 6His point is well taken. Bureaucratization, which flourished amid the growing burdens of government and the great complexity of society, was designed to smother policymakers in blankets of legalism, compromise and reappraisal ? and thereby prevent hasty decisions from being made. The centralization of government that led to Watergate has spread to economic institutions and beyond, making procrastination a worldwide way of life. Many languages are studded with phrases that refer to putting things off ? from the Spanish manana to the Arabic bukrafil mishmish (literally “tomorrow in apricots,” more loosely “leave it for the soft spring weather when the apricots are blooming”). 7Academe also takes high honors in procrastination. Bernard Sklar, a University of Southern California sociologist who churns out three to five pages of writing a day, admits that “many of my friends go through agonies when they face a blank page. There are all sorts of rationalizations: the pressure of teaching, responsibilities at home, checking out the latest book, looking up another footnote.” 8Psychologists maintain that the most assiduous procrastinators are women, though many psychologists are (at $50 ? plus an hour) pretty good delayers themselves. Dr. Ralph Greenson, a U.C.L.A. professor of clinical psychiatry (and
Marilyn Monroe’s onetime shrink), takes a fairly gentle view of procrastination. “To many people,” he says, “doing something, confronting, is the moment of truth. All frightened people will then avoid the moment of truth entirely, or evade or postpone it until the last possible moment.” To Georgia State Psychologist Joen Fagan, however, procrastination may be a kind of subliminal way of sorting the important from the trivial. “When I drag my feet, there’s usually some reason,” says Fagan. “I feel it, but I don’t yet know the real reason.” 9In fact, there is a long and honorable history of procrastination to suggest that many ideas and decisions may well improve if postponed. It is something of a truism that to put off making a decision is itself a decision. The parliamentary process is essentially a system of delay and deliberation. So, for that matter, is the creation of a great painting, or
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