I can’t count the number of times I have heard people say, “I just want to live without any regrets”, which is a pretty tall order, given that most of us inevitably chunk up from time to time, missing a chance to be kind, taking a shortcut that injures someone else, maybe even doing things we had vowed we would never do. Memory of those things done which we ought not to have done and those undone we ought to have done can weigh heavily upon us at times, and regret usually creeps in, often unacknowledged and always unwelcome.
Regret does not feel great, particularly if it’s the sort of regret that is tinged with shame. It’s one thing to wish I had invested in Microsoft and another to remember acting selfishly or dishonestly. Leaving my wallet in the men’s room makes me feel stupid ; not visiting a dying friend makes me feel worthless. There could be a thousand reasons for having made the wrong choice, and I am inclined to find any one of them which allows me to tuck that regret away, out of sight and seemingly out of mind. Apparently, however, my mind is a stickier place than I might wish.
It’s troubling; not only does justification and self-deception take a lot of energy from virtually every interaction we have with the world in the present, it doesn’t attend to that feeling of worthlessness or shame that kicked off the whole process in the first place. I’m going to skip a couple of steps here in the interest of getting somewhere. Moving beyond regret requires moving into regret just long enough to see things for what they were, acknowledge our part with as much honesty as we can bear, and then do something that does have worth.
It’s easy to say that all we need to do is to get honest and act as honest people do; I guess if it were easy, we’d all do it all the time. Getting to honesty is necessary in order to move on, and although that’s an important issue in its own right, I’m moving on to regret.
The best advice I ever got came from my wife on a night when I had chunked up most spectacularly. Her advice to me was succinct: “Just don’t make it worse.” It was necessary advice because shame feels really crummy and my first impulse is to do SOMETHING, anything, to obscure the reality of the situation. When we have made a mess, it is necessary to take action, but first we have to stop making a mess. We don’t have to find a different mess; we have to look at the mess we’ve made and change our behavior.
And then? The past being past, there’s a great deal we can’t undo. We said what we said; we did what we did. The suggestion that it’s not too late to do better is essentially a way of paying backward by paying forward. We work to find a second chance, a do-over. Not absolution or a free pass. No, I’m suggesting circling back and taking a second swipe, trying a better, kinder behavior than the one we’ve come to regret, taking the time to attend to a task we had chosen to avoid. We can’t change yesterday, but there is the outside possibility that we can do something about today.
Rather than dropping into a litany of things I deeply regret, I’ll use a relatively benign regret as an example: For years I considered an annual retreat and dinner with colleagues one of the great afflictions pressed upon me by an uncaring universe. I worked with these people every day; I knew their foibles all too well and had heard their disjointed and indefensible opinions for years. The event promised nothing but pain, and, being an equal opportunity curmudgeon, I growled to my wife in advance of dinner, pouted and isolated myself during dinner, and then subjected my wife to higher grade growling when we got home. Grrrr. Life is rotten, etc.
Year after year, I dreaded the evening, and I had also come to not like myself very much as the glum growling guy in the corner. I didn’t want to be resentful and cranky; I had to do something. Jumping to the unlikely insight that I might have something to do with the quality of my experience of other people and regret my small-minded and unnecessarily alienating behavior, I decided I had better act like a grown-up, if only to see if it made a difference. Against all odds, I determined to change my behavior and my attitude. My attitude, unfortunately, lags behind my behavior. I pretty much have to act as if I am a better person in order to start thinking like a better person. Yeah, attitude lags behind a bit.
Good thing I had the opportunity to grab a do-over. Annual retreat and dinner arrived again, that being the way of annual things.
Instead of trying to sit as far from conversation as I could, I plunked down between two colleagues to whom I had not shown much respect. I was determined to make the evening as pleasant as possible for them. I took the obvious (to a grown-up) path; I asked them about themselves. I listened to what they said and asked follow-up questions that allowed them to speak in greater detail about the fabric of their lives. I asked and asked and asked until I found myself authentically engaged in the stories they told. We have not become best friends, but I identified with many of the challenges and triumphs in their lives and saw them as people rather than tedious annoyances.
Oh, and I had a great time and came home happy, eager to tell my wife how much I had learned in the few hours I’d had with folks we’d know for a long time. I hadn’t made things worse, I hadn’t stacked up a new pile of grievances, I’d practiced being a better person than I had been.
Not only did I feel much better, I learned that it is a gift to try to see a person and to hear the story they have lived. Huh. People can be interesting if you give yourself a chance to see them; what a concept! As do-overs go, it was a very manageable task. My experience is probably not much of a guide as opportunities to find do-overs pop up at alarming rate for me, a function of all those things left undone, I guess. But still, I can summon patience in the check-out line at Target if I can imagine that the person in front of me probably also has a life to get to , I can summon kindness when giving up a parking space if I can assume that I’m not only one in a hurry, and I can even summon appreciation when unearned gifts come my way if I can imagine that someone has taken the time to think of me.
Grown up? Not yet, but coming closer, one do-over at a time.