These words haunt our thought of the past and our desires of the future. "If only this had happened, if only I had done this instead of that, everything would be better." "If I only had that thing, then I would be happy." We place our happiness on some impossible past, where everything would have turned out sunshine and roses, or as if advertisers were correct and things can give us happiness, despite the fact that the euphoria we were promised over and over again never quite materialised. Maybe this time it will work.
These thoughts take us away from the present, the moment in which we live, and defers our contentment to some future time, or places it in some imagined history, as though it were possible for mere humans to know with certainty what might have happened.
People, or some people, at least, knew this truth. Some even put it down, so their fellow men, even those not yet born, could learn from their hard won wisdom. But, as Uncle Screwtape pointed out, only the learned read the old books, and of all people, they are the least likely to derive any benefit from them.
When a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far that statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer's development...To regard an ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge- to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or behaviour- this would be rejected as unutterably simple minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of on may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another.
It was true in C.S. Lewis's time, it is even more true now, when the Historical point of view has given way to the ahistorical deconstruction, which tells its students that every writer who thought they were saying something was in fact saying nothing. As a result, when a modern student of literature reads a passage wherein a writer of the past confronts one of the central paradoxes of man's existence, he will not wonder if this writer saw the truth, and got it right, or even if the author got it wrong and how. They will not wonder if they themselves were wrong, and if they should change their lives.
To bring this post back to its original subject, the writer of old knew about the desires of the heart, and the yearning that says if only. Shakespeare wrote about it in several of his plays, but in none better than in Richard the Second. Here the deposed Richard considers his condition, and whether he is better off as a king, or as a beggar:
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king'd again: and by and by
Think that I am unking'd by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate'er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.
Simple truth from clearly and brightly seen from the dim and dusty past: There are no "if only's" nothing will bring contentment, till we are contented with nothing.