"If" vs. "Is"

Regular readers know that I often write about what I call "therapeutic distinctions", pairs of words or concepts with similar meanings that contain important and even life-altering distinctions, or which initially seem to have little in common but which reveal valuable insights when examined more deeply. These distinctions can be crucial since the words we use influence the way we think, and even small conceptual differences can yield very large consequences.

The two words this article reflects upon are simply "If" and "Is". They are part of what I consider to be a larger discussion about what I call "fantasy addiction", which I believe is a characteristic shared by almost everyone. In short, fantasy addiction refers to the attempt (which is often very successful) to replace what is happening here and now with some imaginary scenario. People who habitually inhabit this kind of living daydream often become ultimately and chronically disappointed, frustrated, gullible, unfulfilled and ineffective in living a deeply meaningful life.

"If" can be a dangerous concept.

  • "If I didn't catch so many red lights I would be there on time";
  • "If my spouse hadn't discovered my affair we might still be married";
  • "If I get this job I can pay my bills";
  • "If I had studied harder I could have gotten better grades"; etc.

What's the big deal about such sentences, especially when their underlying premise is so often clearly evident? Isn't this just telling it "like it is"?.....or "could have been"?.....or "might be"?

Many times such reflections on the past, predictions of the future or conjectures about alternatives can help a person make wise decisions, learn from mistakes, and prepare for the possible. "If" can also be a reason to develop character, as is so movingly expressed in Kipling's inspiring poem of the same name. These are all clearly legitimate uses for considering the conditional perspective of "if".

But it's easy to be seduced by such thinking, and many people rely on it way too often. For them "if only" becomes a mantra of victimization and despair. "If" has a tendency to replace reality and responsibility with a world that never really exists. This is especially true when the "if" being considered is merely fanciful and doesn't lend itself to any true preparation or personal improvement. The sentence "If I had chosen differently my life would be better now" may be theoretically true, but without a productive outcome it is worse than useless -- it is detrimental or even outright destructive.

There is fundamentally only one productive outcome for such use of "If", which is to find its way to "Is".

"Is" defines reality. "Is" occupies here. "Is" exists now. Nothing can be changed unless it is accepted for what it is, not for what it might have been or could be. In this sense the over-used phrase "it is what it is" is simultaneously both simplistic and profound depending on where it leads. Take away the wish, the embellishment, the delusion, the hope, the lie....and what is left is simply what is, no more or less.

Often "if" can be a stirring call of great vision, or a passageway to deepened appreciation. But we must remember always who and where we are at this moment. All action and awareness occurs only in the here and now, and a person who constantly squanders such a precious gift for the "low high" of frequent and recurring fantasy will not have the clarity, judgment and personal power that a serene and richly satisfying life requires. In all cases the proper use of "if" is to lead us back to "is". If you had a different past, or were someone else, things would be different.

But the time is now, and you are here.


Bill Herring is therapist, counselor and life coach in Atlanta.  In addition to his general practice he specializes in helping people with sex and porn addiction and other forms of poorly controlled or understood sexual behavior.