Regrets? I think everyone has regrets, and people who say they haven’t are either liars… or narcissists. —Lee Radziwill
Does anyone else hear Frank Sinatra in their head? I don’t think there’s any escaping that. His song might be part of the issue here.
We have, I believe, a problem owning up to our regrets. There has been a line of popular philosophy the past several years that thinks we should live life with no regrets, that we learn as we go and whatever happens is exactly what was supposed to happen. Such thinking is, in my opinion, complete and utter horseshit. There’s a difference between simply making a mistake and doing something we regret. Regrets can’t be fixed. Regrets are forever.
What got me thinking along this line was an article in Marie Claire about women who regret having children. The article caught my eye because I know some of these women. They both became pregnant while on birth control. They never intended to have children. These women knew in advance that they did not have the temperament to be good mothers. Yet, they allowed family, friends, and/or religion to bully them into keeping the kids. Now, they regret having given in. They feel trapped in a life they never wanted, that arguably should never have happened. Consequence after consequence reminds them that their life was meant to be different. These women really understand the inescapability of regrets.
Regrets happen. Ignore them if you want, but there are lessons to be learned here if we take a moment and pay attention. Don’t shove that regret in the back of your mind and forget. Let it guide you.
Regrets Are Different From Mistakes
Imagine how differently My Way would sound if Frank sang, “Mistakes, I’ve made a few …” It’s just not the same, is it?
Why? Because there is a fundamental difference between mistakes and regrets: Regrets can’t be fixed. The consequences of your actions or inaction are irreversible. Nothing you do makes up for your error. You’re stuck.
Mistakes, on the other hand, might have difficult and long-term consequences, but you have an ability to make amends for the wrong-doing. Let’s say, for example, that in the haze of a misguided youth one commits an act of vandalism. Sure, what you did was wrong, but there are things one can do to rectify the situation. One might repair or replace what was broken, repay a property or business owner, and clean up any mess that was made. Life moves on, lesson learned. Someone says, “Hey, we all make mistakes,” and we put the event in the back of our minds.
Suppose, however, that in committing that act of vandalism one’s actions resulted in the death of someone else. You didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt, but it happened and it was your fault. Nothing you do will ever bring that person back. Even if you take that person’s place, do their work, take care of their family, behave like a model citizen the rest of your life, nothing replaces the soul your actions terminated. Nothing. Ever. That’s a regret. Regrets never go away.
Hopefully, one gets through life with few regrets. Certainly, most of us don’t have the burden of being responsible for someone else’s death. Those we have, though, we need to address and accept.
Facing A Harsh Reality
What do you really regret? When one is asked that question our tendency is to mull over some of our larger mistakes. Mine would be going through my youth trying to be who I thought my parents wanted me to be rather than being myself. A lot of time and energy and money was wasted on things that I never really wanted. Opportunities were missed. Yet, over the years I’ve been able to rectify that problem. Who I am now is who I want to be. Sure, I cannot regain my youth, but I am not bound by the errors in judgment I made when I was 15. Do I wish I had done things differently? Sure, but those were mistakes, not regrets.
My biggest regret is not listening to the stories being told, especially those my parents had to tell. Only after they passed did I begin to realize all the questions that we never asked, the lessons we never had a chance to learn. I can’t get that back. Those stories are all gone, lost to eternity because I wasn’t paying attention. Was the action excusable? No, I knew what I wasn’t doing. We even talked about the need to sit down and record conversations, but we never made the effort for that to actually happen.
Regrets don’t have to be huge, they don’t have to be horrific. Regrets do alter lives, though, and the effects are permanent. Facing them doesn’t give us the ability to change the outcome or make amends. However, accepting our regrets lays the foundation for what we do next with our lives. Our regrets tell us what we must change, what to do differently as we move forward with our lives.
Escaping The Chains
Once we deal with the reality of our regrets, we are then challenged to not become enslaved by them. For the women who regret having children, they struggle to regain their lives, their sense of self-worth. I remember one young woman whose child died at the hands of an abusive husband. For her, the regret of not leaving and protecting her baby was insurmountable and after five years of struggle she committed suicide. Dealing with regrets isn’t always life-altering, but it certainly can be.
What we must understand about regrets is that while lives might be changed by our actions, we are still in control of what happens next. We can’t change the past, but the future we build is our own. Regrets give us the ability to change not only our lives, but perhaps the lives of others.
Each of the women in the Marie Claire article thought they were alone, that they were the only one who ever regretted having children. As they spoke up, though, they discovered that others felt the same way and they all needed help coping with that regret. A community was formed. Books were written. New mothers now have resources to help them because of how others dealt with their regrets.
What we learn and how we respond to our regrets is going to be different for everyone, but the one thing for certain is that we must be willing to move beyond them. Regrets might change our lives but they should never stop them.