I would like to throw my two cents in on this regret business.
“It’s hard for me, a Jew, to stay in the moment. Without the past, where is the guilt? And without the future, where is the dread? And without guilt and dread, who am I?”
― Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal
I haven’t been able to reconcile the cognitive dissonance your article about regrets awakened in me yesterday. I think my brain is confused because I absolutely agree with the overall tone of the piece. In fact, even if I break it down by statement, or by paragraph, I’m there nodding along with the whole enchilada. Except for this one thing. On this one thing, I completely disagree. And it’s a relatively important thing, considering it is the main point you’re making.
And I thought I might try to change your mind.
If you asked my biggest screw-ups in life where they belonged on the pain scale, they’d point to that orange, weepy guy.
Worst pain imaginable.
I used to like to say I didn’t do anything half-assed. When I screw up, I lose my job. I lose my husband. I lose my kids. I lose my home. I total my car.
And I do it all at the same, exact time.
When I screw up, I’m full speed ahead.
So, I’m incredibly fortunate to know some amazing human beings, crazy enough to call me friend but so, so, so much wiser and more insightful than myself.
The wisest of these is a woman I’ll call Faye. She just so happened to be with me the afternoon I realized how deep a hole I’d dug myself back when I lost all of those things I mentioned above. And I’m not going to lie. I was seriously considering suicide at that time and I told her I couldn’t imagine how on Earth anything was ever going to be okay, ever again.
Do you know what she told me?
(Of course you don’t. Disregard that. )
“Everything is already okay. It just doesn’t look like you think okay should look.”
I mean, really think about that for a second. Think of all those regrets you alluded to; all those derailing choices you made that held you back from something better. Because let me be frank here — maybe this is exactly where you were supposed to be. And if that is the case, then where do all your regrets belong now? I think where we end up, after struggles we could have avoided if we had been less stubborn, or more informed, or had access to a DeLorean when we needed it…I think that is where we are supposed to be. Because life is all about our relationships with one another, and if we are anywhere but right here, right now, someone else’s life could be drastically affected. I think that unless you lack basic needs of any kind, things are pretty much okay, in general. We just always think things could improve. But like you said, we don’t always win. And though people always change, we can’t ever be sure if it will be better or worse when they do.
Speaking of people changing,
A few years later, I made another giant mistake, this time with a man who left me devastated and stunned. He hadn’t granted me even the smallest gesture of closure, and I was going round and round trying to understand what happened. I couldn’t eat. Or sleep. And I missed him. And I couldn’t understand why I kept catching bad breaks. I was REALLY, REALLY regretting ever having trusted him and again, I went to Faye for a shoulder.
This time she told me,
One day you’re going to get to thank him for the gifts that came from this.
To my credit, I did not punch her when she threw that bullshit my way. I understood how our defects and mistakes could become our greatest assets (you allude to this concept in your article), but I couldn’t see any chance I would ever look back at this and see what a stroke of luck the outcome had actually been.
But here’s the real deal: Everything that happens in our lives — every bad decision we make; every time we allow ourselves to be screwed over; every tragedy that befalls us — Everything is a gift. Everything.
Can we waste the gifts? Shit, yes. And here’s where I disagree with your theory. I believe that keeping regrettable (at the time) decisions and events in the box marked REGRETS indefinitely is an incredible waste of the gifts we’ve worked hardest (or paid most dearly) for in life.
The trick is learning how to locate the gift within the mess, and keep that part with you. Then throw the rest away. So, you figure you strayed from your intended path multiple times and that eats your lunch sometimes, huh?
What path were you supposed to be on? Should you be a Buddhist monk? A commercial pilot? Batman?
Well, guess what? It didn’t fucking happen. That is over. So you can dwell on it and get caught up in self-loathing, which enhances feelings of disconnectedness from your fellow human, or you can find the gifts that allow you to be of service to others. You can help someone to make a better choice than you did.
I’m in recovery. In meetings, we read The Promises, from pages 83–84 of The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is basically a list of things that will happen in your life if you successfully relearn how to do absolutely everything. And THAT basically means you stop being so self-obsessed and start reaching your hand out to people who have it worse than you do. I think the following excerpt is sufficient for this topic:
3. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
5. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. 6. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. 7. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. 8. Self-seeking will slip away.
One of my favorite parts of your article was this:
I know we are always told that we need to have no plan B and go for our dreams relentlessly and with total abandon, but that’s the kind of advice that only looks good on paper.
It’s the kind of advice you are only ever going to hear from people who have already made it, who have turned their ideas into a million bucks already.
And that is because I was going to bring up the truth about overnight sensations, or instant millionaires.
They can stand up at the podium and pay all sorts of lip service to “how they did it”, but the truth is, they have no idea how to teach anyone to be successful. Because, by and large, they got lucky.
Because even the greatest inventions, and ideas, and novels--those we consider great successes--more often than not come about after repeated failed attempts. People who don’t have any such past failings when they strike it rich usually
I don’t think anyone knows how to teach that. And who are they trying to teach? Not the other successful people, right?
The people out there in the world who are making a difference to the demographic in need of that difference aren’t teaching the steps to success (though they may be calling it that).
They’re showing them how to fall on their asses, over and over and over, and how to get back up, brush themselves off, and keep moving forward. For as long as it takes.
Because that — not fame, fortune, or relocation to Easy Street — is going to be 99 percent of the population’s experience, in one way or another.
So, let me recap and add a little caveat, too.
I don’t understand why you want to stack regrets and continue to obsess over things you cannot change.
But here’s the caveat:
I don’t think that is actually what you are doing.
I think you’re doing exactly what you should be doing. You’re using your experience to benefit others. (And by the way, that is your intent, and it is a good-faith intent. What some of those others may choose to do with it is irrelevant. You can only do your part, not theirs. So if someone doesn’t like you, so what? Maybe yours is just not a voice they can hear. Hopefully they find one. )
I think you’re using what you learned from the things you might have done differently in order to effect a more favorable outcome. I think you use that knowledge to prepare for the future. This is foresight, borne of hindsight.
And thank GOODNESS for the hindsight, without which you may have made the error in a much more devastating circumstance than the one in which you actually did.
And please don’t refer to yourself as stupid. You did the best you could with the resources you had at the time. That’s not stupid.
Oh, and if you really are stacking regrets up like a big ol’ “Look at all the Dumb Shit Jon Westenberg Did”, shrine,
Other people will take care of that for you. Somehow, that stuff is always covered somewhere out there in the Universe.
So, the past. Don’t regret it, but do acknowledge it and allow it to help shape future choices. Leave the self-loathing part in the past where it belongs.
In closing, I wanted to say that I believe that the experiences which cause us to feel regretful are much more than our battle scars.
They are our teachers.
And the more of them under our belt, the more wisdom we acquire. We can hear those lessons in a lecture; we can read them in a self-help book--but nothing will cement them into our brains the way that living through them will.
Anyway, that’s my opinion.
Happy Memorial Day!