It is no revolutionary thing to say If. Most people say it off-hand. Like a word. A tool amongst tools for expression. Placed according to a predetermined order, much like letters in a word. Needless to say, these everyday people use If like one uses Whether. Or Though. Carelessly and without regard for the consequences. But there is a distinction. Please, stop reading if you disagree. If. Did you see it? How deviously it hides? How it works from the shadows? Dwarfed by every word but I and A. Inconspicuous even amongst its two-lettered kin. Who’s most proximal relation, in terms of sheer cunning, can only be said to be As. Do you see how, even out of context, As exerts a formidable pull?

But I think we are safe from its reckless and indiscriminating powers of association, for now. We will not be so easily caught off guard by its tethering hither and thither anything and for any master. Sewing comparative chaos and confusion. A messy deal, As. Entertain no doubts on the matter, in the end, As always gains the upper hand in a power dynamic. And thus, will always, somehow, manage to guarantee its reproductive advantage. Who could be so deluded as to think it any other way? As! See how it worms itself in? The trout. It knows we are talking about it.

We must tread carefully from here on. Even I can get tricked into granting it an accidental evolutionary advantage. The sly agent. But never fear. You are in safe hands. We must make judicious use of what few prophylactic the English language affords us to deny the needless reproduction of the word As. An operative as experienced a… Oh-ho-ho, the sneaky saboteur! See how it very nearly involved me in its reproduction?

I will whisper now to avoid any more of its attention. As is more pernicious than you can ever imagine. You don’t believe me? Case and point. Do you know of a stratum of words that it has not infiltrated? Adverbs, conjunctions, pronouns, prepositions, nouns, abbreviations, symbols and prefixes. As reigns supreme. We take its omnipresence for granted. How many more mutations lurk about, beneath our notice?

Please, association, master, has, case. Now do you understand? Do you, perhaps now, see how crafty As is? How it pervades every echelon of language? What’s more how it effortlessly takes over? Re-appropriating our attention? Viciously proprietary. It might as well be a copyright, for how jealously it guards its own use, how it assures its own perpetuation. Did you catch it? I surrender. The ground is shifting under me. There is simply no way to describe the manifold crimes of As without furthering its ploy. So we will have to side-step the issue for now.

How did we even… oh, yes: If. But how to begin again?

Perhaps there is truly no one else but I who has ever pondered the difference between Gray and Grey, for example? Much the greater my responsibility. For between Gray and Grey lies the key poetic difference at the heart of this disambiguation effort. Dwell with me a while, here, in the space between black and white. Disregard the stereotypes that jump to mind. Silence the crowd of words that usually surrounds Gray and Grey. There is more here than what a dictionary might reveal. How often we selfishly coerce and co-opt words into fitting whichever meaning we desire! Why not champion their fluidity rather than cement them to a specific set of meanings? It is a despicable habit.

Gray, to start, is whiter than Grey, which is more akin to a grey drab fog. Grey is detective by night. Gray is distinguished upper-class, pearls perhaps, and gray hair. Gray is dove, Grey is pigeon.

So if I confide in you that it is no revolutionary thing to say If, you’ll understand that there is if, and there is If. Mine is the latter. Not a word, but a condition.

At first, there was no discernible pattern to those things that made me say If. Nor could I ascertain the precise moment of its inception. Sometimes friends would outstay their welcome at my home, and I would say If. Sometimes a dog or a child wouldn’t stand still for a photo, and I would say If. Not improperly. Not out of turn. Merely If. Like a hiccup or a suppressed sneeze. One might go to the opera and here an If. It was no debilitating thing. At first. And indeed, of all the verbal ticks one might possess, I felt quite fortunate in my misfortune. Not like those poor souls who might be compelled to bark any lewdness to surface in their mind. No. As far as it went, If was no cataclysmic affliction.

If was perhaps more comparable to a cyst. A small sack formed by a slight excess of inner pressure. As you might have noticed, If is not the most spacious vessel for such venting. If, in fact, will contain nothing for very long. Neither I nor F possessing such a shape as to enclose. Unlike renowned vessels such as Or or even As; I and F may only delay the inevitable with their mild perpendicular juttings. And even still, F more than I. Being such a poor vessel, you can easily imagine how rapidly things got out of hand.

If, after all, was just the tip. The outward manifestation of something other, something more pernicious, assailing me from within. However much it shames me, I feel compelled to divulge, for it is indeed vital in our diagnosis; that I had never before harboured such profound musings of the conditional sort. And, which came first between my saying the odd If at inadequate times, and the insurgence of conditional thoughts, I can’t rightly say. A person might be compelled to document the progress of an illness, but If—I must impress upon you once again—was no revolutionary thing to say. You can believe me earnest in saying that I wish for nothing more than to possess more insight into the first stages of my affliction. But alas, one does not exactly document annoyances. And if so, which would be the worse mania? Which would be the more notably deranged behaviour? To compulsively jot down every itch, every twinge, every ache in case they might devolve into a condition? Or to simply itch, twinge or ache without a second thought?

As pertains to the inception of conditional thoughts, I must relate that If followed the opposite trajectory than what one might reasonably hypothesise. For example, were you to surmise that such an insignificant verbal tic as If would instil equally insignificant thoughts, only to then progress to themes of larger significance; then, I am sad to say, you would join me in being mistaken. My inward progression was infinitely more malign, than would be logical, given how minuscule a word If truly is.

How does the saying go? Only through small, everyday actions, may we solve the greater problems of the world? This logic seems to fit as a prognosis of the progression of my inward malady. Every time I would quarrel, I would feel myself the cause of all wars. Every time I would relieve myself, I would feel myself the cause of the thinning ozone. Every time I wasted water, I would feel myself the cause of desertification. Every time I… well, I’m sure you understand the general idea. I would fall victim to such crippling despair. And through all my endless toiling upon the subject, I could never but come to one conclusion. If it weren’t for me, the world would be better off.

This phase of my devolution into madness was short-lived, however. These thoughts were merely my introduction to the illness of If. In some ways, I am inclined to think it not so illogical a progression, after all. Extremes, as is often the case, always make a concept more readily graspable. Needless to say, I soon outgrew such hubris which would place me at the very epicentre of these outlandish fantasies of disaster on a grandiose scale. These musings on the conditional were too circumspect, too general. Like scratching an itch with… an oven-mitt. Not that they necessarily felt this way at the time. Only with the unfair vantage of retrospection, can I now remark upon how these early stages so powerfully contrast with that which my affliction was destined to become.

All too soon, I found myself spiralling into much more sophisticated patterns of conditional thinking. There was no telling where my whimsical affliction would lead me next. Forced to invent increasingly specific methods of needling the inner manifestations of my saying If, I inevitably isolated myself from the outside world. And, of course, there could not have been a single action more conducive to the devolution of my condition than reclusion. But, perhaps I am not giving due credit to how utterly helpless I felt by then.

From my isolation onward, the focus of my conditional thinking narrowed at a perilous speed. I became engrossed with such matters as it now shames me to admit. If could range from: If only I hadn’t spoken that word, hours before a friend’s death. To: If only I had retrieved my investment before the crash, or invested more before a meteoric rise. From one thing to the next, I found myself spending hours pouring over pictures of a friend’s vacation in the Maldives. And if I had the misfortune to stumble over a sweater I wore as a child, I could spend days reminiscing on the purity of childhood and how inevitable my corruption.

All the while, If punctuated my outer-life too. When I first manifested signs of If, close relations thought I was inclined to musing on the subject of probability. Some true philosophers amongst them used If to expand—to great lengths—on the improbability of everything, right down to humankind itself.

I, however, was not making a statement. I held no designs behind my saying If, for it was not voluntary. It is not as though I had booked an exhibition in the National Art Gallery and, out of a moment of sheer inspiration, had used the expansive canvas of the gallery wall to write the word If in impossibly broad letters and a provocative font. I could not, would not entertain undue credit for my saying If. But, by the same token, nor could I wholly condemn the type of wilful ignorance that led people to seek to read more into my condition. In the end, no one—and much less I—could have proportioned the dimensions of my disease.

Generously, acquaintances would often liken my case to verbal tics which, they would assure me, we all possessed. At parties, If could become a performance, of sorts. Some, which you must surely forgive, would even adopt If as a fashionable expression. Like saying Of Course or, perhaps more to the point, Of Course Not. It was a tiresome habit, and although I am grateful to those who sought to alleviate my curse by humouring it, or minimising it; I cannot recommend the behaviour. I can only imagine it to be akin to finishing the sentence of a person who stutters. These well-intentioned, but misguided efforts must be discouraged.

Unguided, my condition was free to degenerate into the most pernicious habits of conditional thinking. Make no mistake, my poor soul was merely a testing ground for what If sought to evolve into. And, when I name myself patient zero, understand that it is with a profound sense of guilt, not delusions of grandeur. For, were I not so weak, had I been more creative in my opposition to this most curious disease; If might not have discovered its most contagious form.

I can only surmise what form this will take. However, being perhaps the only person who can claim the dubious title of expert on the matter of If, I can assure you that it is an educated guess. Never was my condition worse than when What preceded my pathological If. To dwell upon things out of one’s control is a quintessentially futile exercise. And viciously addictive. It is not vanity that leads me to declare that, thus packaged into such a consumable form, thus weaponised; the rest of the world would be as helpless as I am before such a powerfully infectious concept.

As with many other details pertaining to the presence of If, it is virtually impossible to predict exactly when the first epitaph would read If, only that, by then, it would be much too late. By then, If will have taken much of the world by storm. Perhaps my philosopher friends were not so far off from the truth when expanding upon the idea that If was somehow a declaration, underlining the sheer improbability of humankind in the universe. If anything, truly anything, life on earth would not have evolved. And much less humans.

So you see, I do not delude myself in thinking that I brought about this impending pandemic of If. I believe that the world was ripe for If. And of course, not every part of the world would be affected equally. Some more remote areas of humankind would still flourish. Some obscure corners where If remains a luxury no one can afford. Where actions still surface from need only, and thus cannot be judged by the same criteria as those surfacing from desire or malice.

But, I fantasise… This confession is not, indeed, a confession, but rather a message of hope. For in my darkest hour, the most improbable events occurred. How the world conspired to have the two of us meet, I cannot fathom. A woman came to deliver my week’s groceries. My usual delivery man knew well not to linger about my doorstep, if perhaps not why. After all, there are not many types of people who get their groceries delivered: the aged and the recluse. The woman had clearly not been made aware. And after my customary ninety-second grace period, when I opened the door… she was still there awaiting my signature!

‘Signature please,’ she asked not impolitely, but matter-of-fact.


‘No ifs and buts about it, Mister. Company rules, I’m afraid.’

I was stuck. The woman seemed of strong enough a constitution, but inside my head, a voice was repeating over and over: This is how it starts. This is how If spreads. I had no other choice.

‘Come in,’ I said with a sigh, ‘I’ll explain everything you need to know about If. Trust me you’ll want to know…’

‘As.’ she answered.

I was dumbfounded. How could anyone so recklessly promulgate such a viral word? And to what end?

‘Listen,’ I said, ‘I know this sounds strange, but I can’t let you go now. You don’t understand what’s at stake. The world is not ready for If.’

‘No, you listen, Mister. I’m doing your normal delivery guy a huge favour today. You want to go without food for a week? Be my guest. Otherwise, scribble here and I’ll gladly get out of whatever nightmare you’re living in.’

It took everything I had to contain an If that was trying to escape the confines of my mouth. If this miserable woman would not heed my warnings, if she had somehow not yet been contaminated by my first outburst of If; I had to do everything in my power not to utter it again in her presence. Seeing my hesitation, the woman grumbled, bent low and grabbed my delivery.

‘As,’ she said and made her way back to her van.


We both froze in place.

So, when I write that this is not a confession but a message of hope, you’ll understand that, at that most inauspicious moment, an improbable event of inoculation took place. By what fate, I cannot know, but the substitute grocery deliverer had also begun a curious verbal habit. As… No wonder the woman was so miserable. A soul thieved of all joy by an endless cycle of comparison with the world. Her As made my If look like a mere hiccup. Luckily for her, her comparative was not as far gone as my conditional.

There! I’ve done it… I’ve finally done it. Did you catch it? Look up. You can’t miss it. Just speaking of the woman’s affliction forced my hand into the wanton reproduction of As. How will I ever wash away the shame? Seeing first-hand how powerfully contagious As can be; surely you can no longer entertain any doubt in your mind that our respective afflictions would follow a parallel trajectory? Each with its own disastrous outcome. Each progressively evolving into its most contagious form.

As if. I tremble even now, to let both these words dwell so close to one another. However improbable it may come to seem to future generations, our immunisation—and by extension: the world’s—nonetheless surface from this most inconceivable juxtaposition of words. For, indeed, how can one conceive of conjunctioning a conjunction?

Perhaps, to an outsider, it all sounds a little ludicrous. But when our two madnesses encountered each other, they somehow annulled themselves.

Somehow, my If succeeded in injecting a hint of modesty in her comparative As. Thereby restraining As from freely comparing anything and for any master. And, equally somehow, her As, disarmed my If with some hefty degree of teenage angst-turned-indifference… It transformed my anxiety towards events out of my control into some uncannily powerful defiance, a doubting that things would, could, or should necessarily turn out better if…

So today, I write to you a free man. Oh, this is not a love story. The woman was a perfectly odious creature, to be sure. Ours was a platonic relationship that merely enabled us to transcend our respective afflictions. However, if there exists someone out there with a similar disease, a condition that escapes the grasp of modern medicine; this message is for you. If there is such a thing as a cure for If, and a cure for As; then there will always remain a modicum of hope for humanity.

 © 2022 Etienne Robert.  All rights reserved.

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