By Norris Burkes Sept 10, 2023

If you saw the 1983 movie “WarGames,” you’ll remember the moment the young hacker David Lightman cracks a Pentagon computer called The War Operation Plan Response (WOPR).

The electronic-voiced computer asks Lightman, “Shall we play a game?”

But the computer doesn’t mean Pac-Man. If engaged, this game won’t give you extra lives or bonus points. This game can start a real-life nuclear war.

Self-destruct scenarios aren’t limited to the movies. For instance, consider the consequences of engaging in what I call the shoulda-woulda-coulda game.

If you’re human, you’ll recognize this game well.

In the new book I’m writing called, “Tell it to the Chaplain,” I share the moments in which patients, airmen, and parishioners came into my office moaning about their poor decisions.

They usually begin by slapping their forehead and exclaiming, “I shoulda-woulda-coulda done this or that.” It’s often expressed like, “I shoulda married someone else” or “I coulda been a contender.” Or maybe they think about how rich they woulda been if they’d bought stock in Apple when it became public.

Hey, I’m not immune to playing a few rounds myself.

I look back to 2015 for one of my biggest regrets. That’s the year we sold our California McMansion to experiment with international travel.  

We spent those three years traveling the Western states in a motorhome and then flying internationally to Canada, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rico, Belgium and England.

We had a life-changing time. No regrets. (See

OK, maybe a few. When it came time to buy a home again, we didn’t make nearly enough to match the dizzying rise of California home prices.

Given that discrepancy in funds, I’ve found myself saying, “We shoulda leased our home instead of selling.” I’ve been whining how we “coulda bought a much nicer home if we woulda waited to sell.”

Oh, my. Poor, sad Norris. How do I get myself out of this shoulda-woulda-coulda tailspin of self-pity?

Becky and I hit the time-out button to do three things: pause, pray, and promise.

We paused to ask ourselves some questions. Do we really need a lakeside home with two cars and a golf cart? Could we buy a modest home and still find meaningful social connections in churches and service organizations? Or would we allow a fashionable home to dictate our self-image?

Honestly, how much does one need to possess before one can claim, “I’m good enough” or “I’ve made it”? Must we collect more and more to feel that we are worthy?

After some reflection on these questions, we positioned ourselves on a bench beside the lake to pray. Our prayers brought to mind how spiritually full our lives are now. Our blessings overflow, not just in terms of housing, but in health, family and faith.

Finally, we made a promise to one another. We pledged to call each other out when one of us starts playing the shoulda-woulda-coulda game. When I say we shoulda leased our house, Becky stops me and grips my face in her hands. No, not going there.

When she says we coulda traveled some more, I touch her hand and shake my head. No going there. The shoulda-woulda-coulda game has to stop here.

Most of you likely know that we finally did manage to purchase a house five years ago. I once again have a favorite chair, a study, and some artwork hanging.

But more important than furniture and mementos, we’ve managed to keep a sense of ourselves. We’ve kept our adventurous spirit, our consciousness of togetherness and an understanding of what is essential in life.

These are the same essentials identified in the sacred writing of Proverbs 24:3-4: “By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.”


Send comments to Leave recorded comments at (843) 608-9715. Visit my website at where you can download a free chapter from my new book, “Tell it to the Chaplain.”