Ok. Let’s talk about regret. That word, that emotion, that whatever which has been the staple of love songs, broken hearts and sleepless nights for millennia. What is it about regret? It’s one of those things you just have to live with and deal with because going back and changing the regretful words, actions or events is not an option. How to live with it is the real challenge.
Once when I was going through a particularly intense bout of regret a good friend reminded me that we should not regret the things we have done, only the things we have not done. That is a loaded statement even though I get the logic. It should be that the only time we express regret is on our deathbed, as in “Gee, I wish I had done that sky diving gig I had always dreamed about doing when I was 20. I regret that now.” But not regretting that we had not taken a chance or had broken a heart (including our own) or missed a loved one’s wedding doesn’t quite feel right either. It is true dealing with regret allows us to grow and evolve and hopefully not repeat the thing we regret doing. But that growth hurts like hell.
For me, the worst thing about regret is learning something about myself that I don’t like. Was I really that person who did this thing when I intended to do something completely different? Was I really that mean, callous, forgetful, careless, and thoughtless as all that? I never considered that about myself. And then there’s the attempt to overcompensate so that others wouldn’t really think I was mean, callous, forgetful, careless or thoughtless! It’s fruitless. The only thing to be done is to forgive myself, especially if asking forgiveness is not an option (as in the person you have hurt never speaks to you again). And for a ruminative gal like me, forgiveness can take months, years and maybe never.
I read a great quote the other day. It said, “Everyone has a chapter they don’t read out loud”. I believe the things we regret would definitely be written in that chapter. There’s shame attached to regret, whether for things left unsaid or for things that were. A spat with your former best friend that has lasted decades. Those final words of anger to a loved one. A missed opportunity to step up that will never come again. I regret, I regret, I regret.
One of my favorite songs about regret is Joni Mitchell’s “River”. In the song, she laments that she hurt and lost a good man and wishes she could find a frozen river to skate away and escape from her regret even though now she lives nowhere near a frozen river. As a child of the Great White North, that imagery resonates with me. Strapping on a pair of ice skates and gliding into the peaceful stillness of a frozen river sounds a bit like redemption. But that’s the thing about regret. You carry it with you whether you get to skate away or not.
Alexander Pope famously wrote “to err is human; to forgive, divine” Forgiving yourself for erring (and therefore for being human) can take a lot of work. There is always that reach for the divine forgiveness that may or may not ever come. I am more mindful of the fickle nature of life and trying to be better about telling those I love how I feel about them before the chance to do so is gone forever. But I am finding that my faith in myself is growing stronger as I grow older and I hope I am getting better at avoiding things I will regret. And despite the many things I wish I could change over the past years, I continue to believe that one day there will come a time when I can say, I regret, I regret, I regret….nothing.