He begins to rattle off a list of regrets, his jaw set and resting in his hand, his gaze somewhere in the distance as though I weren’t in the room at all, his voice only slightly more than a murmur. I am taken aback. He is a man with many accomplishments, a full and vibrant life, and he isn’t one to rehash the past.
A snippet of music plays in my head: I hear Frank Sinatra singing “Regrets, I’ve had a few…” These lyrics seem self-indulgent, as if in the song “My Way” we have a hint at a framework for the Me generations to follow.
Of course, you may prefer Piaf crooning “Je ne regrette rien,” which is a bolder statement – one of survival, of defiance, of refusal to accept recriminations from anyone for anything, much less giving oneself to a passionate life with all its ups and downs.
The claim to no regrets may also characterize those who are self-destructive or even narcissistic, seeking to come to terms with where they find themselves, justifying their actions, and unable to accept responsibility for relationships that falter, break, then cease to function.
When I contemplate the notion of regret, I feel the sense of loss at opportunities cut short, roads not taken, words left unsaid, and remarks exchanged in anger. I think of misjudgments, or what we perceive in hindsight as outright mistakes, though these are frequently the incidents that yield our most important lessons.
Consider this definition of regret:
… sorrow or remorse for an act, fault, disappointment; a sense of loss…
Haven’t you had your share of regrets?
Some are bittersweet. Others, just bitter. Living with regret can be melancholic as well as illuminating; too often we dwell in the former rather than the latter.
Yet when I’m in the process of looking back, it’s often for the purpose of self-examination. I am attempting to change myself, and to avoid repeating my mistakes. Generally, anything more is too complex to be useful; I glean the lessons I can, and try to leave it at that.
Life Is Full of Conflict
Here’s the problem with regrets. We are all faced with choices, and we do the best we can with who we are and what we know at a point in time. Few options are fully and predictably a win; all options leave alternatives unexplored, and therefore, potentially regretted.
Worse still are the scenarios in which we may have to choose among conflicting needs and priorities, and there are no wins at all.
Do you give your evenings to your children or to pursuing more work? If work is essential to paying the bills, however much you regret less time with your family, aren’t you doing what you must?
At 20, it’s unlikely that we feel regret. Even if we’ve packed a tremendous amount of experience into our young lives at that stage, we haven’t acquired the perspective to evaluate actions and their consequences. We may sense that we’ve made missteps, or be aware we’ve made serious mistakes. But without the long view, for most of us, we more naturally look to the future as our redemption – and march into it, with resolve.
Regrets Are Intensified at Midlife
I wonder if middle-age isn’t the age of regret – harmful if we stew in our sorrows or if regret becomes paralyzing, and helpful if we pluck awareness from the disappointments, adjusting ourselves and our directions accordingly.
So we look at where we are, we look at where we’ve been, and we see the many paths not taken, the paths on which we stumbled, and the fruits – ripe or spoiled – of the labors we chose to pursue and those we turned away from.
Not to discount the wisdom we have acquired, we may also struggle to accept diminishing capacity in some respects: We are more likely to tackle mountain climbing at 25 than 55, or the freedom to backpack across Europe at 30 that we don’t possess at 50 as we deal with adolescents or pending layoffs or a spouse going through a depression.
Regrets, Large and Small
As I listen to a friend enumerate his regrets, I am surprised at how harshly he judges himself and I am impressed by his candor. He regrets not spending more time with his children. He regrets not starting a business of his own. He regrets one particular opportunity he turned down, assuming there would be another – better – and there was not.
Regrets may be deeply private, though more universally shared that we let on: I should never have married him… or her; I should have had a child no matter what, when I could; I should have walked away from that fight, that marriage, that job; I should never have walked away from that fight, that marriage, that job.
As for the irrevocable breaches of trust that lead to situations in which family members do not speak or relationships shatter, all I can do is nod and say… yes, I understand. I also understand that hindsight is 20-20, and perhaps we would do better to ask ourselves how we will interpret our regrets, and what to do with that knowledge.
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