Lately, for possibly the first time in my life, I am becoming familiar with Regret. And she is not a pleasant companion.
I don’t mean the regret of “I wish I hadn’t said that!” or “I wish I had handled that situation a little differently.” We all have those moments and hopefully we process and learn from them rather quickly. No, I am talking of regret deserving of capitalization. Regret of major decisions that may have permanently altered the course of my life.
This week was full of small lightbulb moments, glimpses into what might have been, realizations (yet again) that each of us sits with the consequences of our choices. With the benefit of many years’ removal, I saw some of my choices from an angle I’d never had the privilege of before.
I have always believed that regret is wasteful. Reworking the past is a futile task and understanding of it can only go so far. Certainly, introspection and comprehension of motivations and prejudices at play are useful and help us grow, but true regret — the wishing of a different path taken — has seemed to me to be another form of self-abuse and wallowing.
My birth mother and I do not enjoy many shared beliefs or values. We had a conversation about regret once and she scoffed at me. “Regret,” she pronounced, “is the purest, most effective course correction device ever! To avoid it is to run from your fear that, just maybe, you have truly screwed something up!” When she assumes her “Of course I know everything more and better than you do” posture, I tend to immediately stiffen and reject her theories, as I did that day. But I have been re-thinking her approach lately.
Part of my distaste for regret stems from my overall outlook on life and personal growth and development. I have clungly steadily to the belief that one small change in my path could have altered me irrevocably, changing both the wonderful and the less so. I saw every experience, every choice, as an opportunity to grow and learn, and I saw those opportunities as the bricks that formed me, laid one on top of the other, depending on each other for their mutual strength. Pull one away and who I am — including all the parts that I love and value — would collapse. There is solid comfort in the idea that your bad choices as well as your good led you to the things in your life that you cherish most. Additionally, this belief system allows you to examine your choices and learn from them, without having to label them as mistakes and sacrifice self-esteem over things or decisions you can no longer amend. And it is empowering to see ourselves as creatures of our own creation, in control and responsible for all of the texture of our lives.
This belief system was challenged several years ago when, during my separation, I read a book called The Post-Birthday World. Its plot is essentially simple and the theme is not particularly original: What happens if you pick a different path? In the book, a woman agrees to go out with her husband’s best friend for his (the friend’s) birthday. The husband is out of town, the friend has very few other friends, and even though the woman doesn’t particularly like the friend, her husband convinces her to be a sport and celebrate with the friend. So she does, and in the course of the evening, after several drinks and much conversation, the friend leans over to kiss the woman. At this point, the book splits into two stories — the one travels with the woman on the life she has after she kisses the man, the other takes us down the road if she were to pull away from him and decline. The writer is not exceptionally talented and the story can drag in places, but what makes this book special is the answer it posits to the original question: It doesn’t matter. Throughout the remainder of the book the two stories diverge and then intersect again, back and forth, until finally, at the very, very end, the woman ends up in essentially the same place. Two ways of getting there… basically the same destination. And neither path was easier, really. Both had challenges and pain and happiness and moments of light and darkness. And they both led her to the same destination.
This end result left me uncomfortable. On the one hand, it confirmed my belief that regret is useless because we will all eventually get where we are supposed to be regardless, and no one path is “right.” On the other hand, it meant that perhaps I could have chosen those other paths and still be just as happy or miserable as on my current path, whereas I had been assuming that by doing my best, I was creating a better life than the ones to be had down those paths. If this was not true, why bother trying? If we are simply going to stumble through life and ultimately reach the same destination no matter our choices, what do they matter?
First, my heart and mind railed against this — free will must matter! they screamed. We must have some control over our destiny! And then I heard an equally strong (yet noticeably less manic) voice remind me that there is something comforting in the possibility that no one decision — no matter how great — ever throws us truly off course. Risk can be taken without fear, because it doesn’t really matter; we’re not giving up a much better road for one less so. It’s all basically the same in the end. Perhaps had I made different choices at some of those forks in the road, I would still be exactly who I am today, the good and the bad. Perhaps in a different location, perhaps with slightly different circumstances, but essentially the same woman. The only thing that is certain is that I will never know. And that is Regret’s seduction. The “maybe.” The tantalizing “what if.” Perhaps I would be happier if I had done that or hadn’t done this. Maybe I was short-sighted there or didn’t fully appreciate the value of that.
Oprah used to like to say “If I had known better, I’d have done better.” So, perhaps with the benefit of experience and reflection, now I know better. I am not sure what of my regrets can be altered, fixed, changed. Perhaps none. Perhaps some can be retrieved and salvaged over time and effort, but possibly not. Reality is a hard and cold taskmaster, unmoved by sweet and inspiring platitudes that insist that anything is possible. Under that harsh light, I must come to terms what is past and salvage what might yet be saved. Regret might indeed be a useful teacher, but I’d like to learn her lessons and move on and away from her. She feels like a black hole that could swallow and snuff out all hope and optimism if I share her company for too long.
So, hopefully my acquaintance with Regret will be brief. I am cataloging the things I might change, considering where those roads might have led, wondering which of them might still be options. But I suppose the main thing I will take away from this time is the sense of Regret as a course correction, as my birth mom said all those years ago. I will spend just enough time with my regrets to understand why I wish I’d done differently, and then I will be mindful of those discoveries next time, and possibly take a different fork in the road, make a different choice, live a different life.
Or maybe not. And maybe it doesn’t matter.