The misnomer of ‘unfinished business’

A friend made a comment to me recently that she had some “unfinished business” with a relative, a longstanding disagreement that she believed they would someday resolve. (Read: make her cousin see things her way.) I doubt that will happen. Because I’ve come to realize that there really is no such thing as unfinished business in our lives.

But there are lost moments, missed opportunities, things that slipped through our grasp, chances we didn’t take, sentences we didn’t finish, and misunderstandings we didn’t clarify.

There’s a popular meme that says, “It’s not failure — it’s unfinished business.” I would dispute that. It’s failure, but we’re afraid to admit it. We just didn’t like the way we failed.

We finish the so-called business at the moment it happens: with those conversations we don’t have, the emotions we don’t express. It’s over. The moment is gone. And you don’t get it back. Call it the Butterfly Effect, whatever. But inactions have the same result as actions, because an inaction is itself a choice, an action.

5947645872_92132a2681_bYou don’t get to go back to age 18 or 21 or 25 or 30, — and you’re not the same person as you were then, anyway. So the “business” didn’t end the way you would have liked — it is no less finished. It’s more romantic, more hopeful to term it “unfinished.” But it’s purely a euphemism for a failure or an unhappy ending. Why do we hate to use those words?

I always liked the movie “Sliding Doors” because it shows how one relatively simple action in one instant — like missing a train by seconds — can make a dramatic difference in life.  The problem is that we are all subject to “what if” thinking in our lives as we move through them. What if I’d said the words aloud? What if I’d taken that job? What if I’d confronted that person? What if I’d made that phone call, sent that letter, or what if I’d done neither?

There are theories in physics (and metaphysics!) about alternative realities, where in one reality we make decision A, and in another we make decision B, and we lead two completely different lives in each reality. The catch is, we don’t get to know how that other reality, if it exists, turns out.

With five decades behind me, I see that any regrets I may have are about things I didn’t do more than any foolish things I did. They are about the words I never said, the chances I didn’t take, the emotions I didn’t bare, the people I didn’t stand up to. And if I could give my much younger self advice, it would be to always take the chance. To hell with the fears, the potential for embarrassment and failure. Something wonderful and amazing could happen.

But when you leave this earth, your business will always be finished, one way or another.

“You’d better know that in the end

It’s better to say too much

Then never say what you need to say again.

Even if your hands are shaking

And your faith is broken

Even as the eyes are closing

Do it with a heart wide open

Say what you need to say, say what you need to say.”

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