if I had known then what I know now…

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.



Filed under dating, divorce, general musings, healing, love, personal growth, relationships, single mom

16 responses to “if I had known then what I know now…

  1. I have a love/hate relationship with woulda, shoulda and coulda. In the end, does it really matter? No, because there is nothing we can do to change things from the past. Lesson learned, move forward. Sucks…but whatcha gonna do? 🙂

    • I think that is true for the opportunities that are done are gone — the ol’ “train has left the station” ones — but what I’m musing over are the ones that I’m less certain are completely and permanently out of reach… I wonder about the possibilities of doubling back on my path and taking the other one. It’s that question that has been playing my mind during my quiet moments…

  2. I had much the same feeling a couple years ago. I am working on forging a path between the one I missed many years ago and the one that I was on but regretted. I think regret has a lesson for us, but to listen too it for too long keeps us stuck out of fear. It’s a tricky balance.

    • A tricky balance, indeed. I think you’re absolutely right that if you let Regret get too comfortable in your life, she’ll invite her friend Fear to move in, too. Not a good combo.

      I would like to think that I can use regret as an impetus to propel me forward toward the things I really want. I suppose we’ll see… 🙂

  3. I absolutely disagree that we will end up in the same place despite the path we take. The choices that we make CAN (and in my case, DID) dramatically alter the path of my life. I know this in no uncertain terms.

    I think regret really only comes into play if you are unhappy, honestly. Yes, we can all look back and ponder the choices we’ve made and wonder how they’ve impacted where we are now.

    When I look back, there are a lot of choices I made that could have been better; could have been more ideal situations. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, because I am here now, and this is my life. Wanting something to be different doesn’t matter- only making choices matter.

    Every action- even if it’s inaction- is a decision; a choice. Stay or go? Act on this or not?

    But to actively regret something? Nope. Not for me. You can’t change it, so what does it matter, the effort you put into regretting something and wishing it had been different? It’s pointless to waste time and effort on something (regret) that’s not going to change anything.

    Introspection is good. Understanding why you made the decisions you did can perhaps prevent you from making similar mistakes (or choices) again. But to wallow in regret is totally unproductive and serves absolutely no purpose, imo.

    At the end of the day, I have absolutely zero regrets. I’m not saying that perhaps my life could have been different; maybe even better (although I’m not sure how); I can certainly see how staying where I was would have resulted in a much, much worse life for me personally, even though it would have been what others had expected of me.

    We can never go back, only forward. Having regrets won’t change our future. Hindsight is always going to be 20/20, but we’ll never know then what we know now.

    It’s much better, imo, to identify what you want. Then you can figure out how to get there, and realize that because we are not really in control of our lives, the ‘hows’ of getting there may be a wind-y interesting road that may have some potholes (or sinkholes) in it.

    Anyhow. My .02 for the morning. 😆

    • I agree with much of what you said, Tik, except that I do think that sometimes we double back and select a road we passed by previously, much the way Tourist went back to University for her degree. This may be what you’re calling “identifying what you want.” I think my point is that recognizing a regret may actually help you identify what you really want more clearly, as long as you don’t get stuck in it, as Lisa pointed out.

      Interesting ideas, all of them…

      Thanks. 🙂

      • Indeed. Although, I think there is a misnomer that things ‘have to happen’ at certain times in our lives, particularly schooling, or we’ll never get them again. I know so many people who did the college after high school route, only to return as adults with children because they hated the career path they had chosen then and they needed to do something else to stay sane.

        I wouldn’t necessarily consider those years ‘wasted’ unless they were completely coerced (as I would have found for myself). I tend to think of those as roads that weren’t meant to be travelled at that point and time. I don’t see them so much as doubling back as much as seeing a new opportunity and taking it.

        I don’t know if that makes sense or not. We (humans) tend to think of things in very linear terms, like, you can only do certain things at certain times. I would agree that some things, like having children, for example, are usually better done at certain times in a person’s life (when they are young, for example) for biological reasons. And yet, there are some people I know (like my one brother, for example, and probably my one sister) who would definitely benefit from that particular life event at older ages, if at all.

        If you’re a woman, your fertility is actually a ticking clock, so it makes sense to do that because often, there is no actual opportunity to double back. So this, then, would be a choice that is either taken advantage of at the time, of often lost altogether.

        Bottom line for me is that there are choices that continue to be present, regardless of where you are in your life. And honestly, because we never stop learning (and hopefully growing) as people, I am different now than I was then because of my life experiences, even if they weren’t good ones and ones I would have chosen. Certainly, I also think people can be happy in a variety of scenarios, because people aren’t one dimensional.

        What I would choose to do now (hospice) would not have even been on my radar 20 years ago, although it was the experiences I had then that brought me to a place a few years ago where I realized that if I had to find a professional career path, it would be that (hospice); stemming from those experiences.

        I guess in my mind, it’s more of a circular path going up, instead of a linear road going from left to right.

        At the end of the day, I would hope that the goal would be each of us living our lives like we want them, and finding happiness and peace with whatever we’ve chosen. I think if we have those things, despite circumstances and situations that are hurled at us, we should be able to have a sense of satisfaction with where we are now.

        To thine own self be true…………… 😀

  4. First and foremost, I think that you personally as well as the rest of us make key decisions in our lives that create a fork in the road. In my case, I have dozens of decisions that changed my life and those of my future grand-children and descendants. In yours, it wouldn’t take long to find a dozen turning points in your life that have affected everything since, for better or worse.

    I’m with you on the general feeling that regret is not very valuable. But…it’s not to be ignored completely. When you make a poor decision and regret it, often you use that regret to weight the contributors to future decisions differently.

    I’m with you on the general feeling that regret is not valuable because usually we make decisions based on the information available and based on our desires. Should we have dessert with the meal? Should we take the job in a Western state? Should we stay or should we go? Life doesn’t offer us the opportunity to test out different paths in life and so we run with what we know, sometimes choosing poorly because our heart overrules our mind.

    As a supplementary comment, it doesn’t help in a sensible discussion of regret that the media tends to glamorize risk-taking. For example, the person that decided to stop and play the Lottery on a whim, even though it was his/her last few bucks. Or the chance meeting and chancier follow-up that turned into a loving marriage and lots of beautiful children (that are NOT teenagers you will notice). Or the programmer that gave up a Harvard education to start a business that became a global behemoth. These kinds of things play well in books and on TV, but don’t reflect the harsher reality that most Lottery players lose, many marriages fail, and most small business fail. (Note that it’s a particularly American thing to celebrate the chancy successes in this way; I don’t recall this in other countries at all.)

    We all yearn for success in life, love and/or business and allow ourselves to be entranced with the what-if scenarios. We sometimes wallow in the decisions that we made that didn’t pan out as well as we’d anticipated. You’ve made some big decisions over the years. Maybe some of those decisions are irrevocable. Maybe some can be ‘undone’. For example only, you’ve talked on this blog about a past boyfriend enough that you might be wondering to yourself if there is really no chance at all of it working out. There may be something mesmerizing about him that tugs at you, even though there are other reasons you’re not together right now. There are no right answers to be had for that one, if that were the case. On the downside, Bill Clinton was apparently so mesmerizing in person in the past that women all over the country wanted to bed him, but being one of the women that wanted him didn’t work out well for any of them; he just wasn’t that into them. On the upside, love stories filled with off and on romances do work and have happy endings sometimes. Sometimes that persistence (that you’ve reflected on before in this blog) pays off. But then, we’re less talking about regret than about chance and free will now. And I firmly believe we control our own destinies, even as we are often slaves to our desires. We choose how disciplined to be in setting someone aside, in how often to have dessert, in how to manage our Lottery participation, etc. Finally, as one moves up the corporate ladder, the decision-making includes more experience but less information. Very big decisions are often made with incomplete information. Objective analysis of this for share traders suggests that chance plays a bigger part than people want to believe. Hence, you can’t pick right or wrong in whatever is on your mind. You can simply pick a path and see where it goes. I hope the journey is exciting the destination somewhere that works for you.

    • Good stuff, SD. Thanks for taking the time to throw all this out there…

      First, I find it interesting that you drew the conclusion that perhaps part of my regret involved James. Reading my post from a different perspective, I can see how it might seem that way, but this post actually doesn’t reference him at all. I don’t regret our relationship in the slightest, but I also don’t regret that we’re no longer together. We have talked about it extensively, and even tried again, but it won’t work. That knowledge frees me from regrets in that case… at least so far. 🙂

      As for the glamorizing of risk-taking, I agree with you to a certain extent that it is perhaps unhealthy, and I definitely agree with you that it is uniquely American. BUT, I’m not sure that’s entirely a bad thing. American optimism — even BLIND optimism — is enormously endearing to me. The absolute certainty that if one just tries hard enough, good things WILL happen, you WILL get lucky, is intoxicating stuff and what (I believe) has carried this country through crises (The Great Depression or Watergate, for instance) that might have sunk a less resilient culture. So, while I completely agree with your description, I’m not sure I’m on board for judgment you’re attaching to it. I can see it, I can name it, but I still like it.

      I do think, however, that too many people (including, and perhaps especially, Americans) use the “No Regrets” mantra as a means of letting themselves off the hook for any guilt or responsibility over a bad choice. To my mind, “I did the best I could” isn’t an excuse to simply refuse to look at something or own its consequences, but merely an acknowledgement that, as you perfectly pointed out, we all act with imperfect information.

      Finally, I think that, overall, the comments tend to presume choices that cannot be undone or made over, and there are a lot of choices that can be revisited. As Tourist pointed out above, she went back to University to get a degree she wished she’d gotten. That’s the perfect example of what I was thinking about in terms of back-tracking and revisiting a choice with new information or with the benefit of more experience. I think regret can help us make that course correction, if we’re willing to listen to it rather than run from it. I think you probably agree, given some of your comments, but I wanted to be clear.

      Thanks again for the comments. Very thoughtful…

      • I’m with you, and the Edmonton tourist here. Different paths can be taken, and back tracking is a great way to grow sometimes. And the story you referred to reminded me of the film Sliding doors, which draws essentially the same (simplistic) conclusion that there is some kind of destinity awaiting, whatever the path you take…
        Funnily enough, my own approach to risk taking is non-American, in the sense that I don’t believe in the lottery winning, or try hard enough and you you will get what you want optimism, but I take risks on the basis that virtually nothing (bar life and death) cannot be undone if you do have regrets.
        Knowing you, I’m sure you’ll soon turn those regrets into plans, and then successes… 🙂

        • D’oh, “destinity” ?! Can you tell it’s Monday morning ? 😉

        • Thanks for the vote of confidence, Lady E. 🙂 I’m not so sure how much of it I can turn around, but I do think that I can make some changes that will certainly help.

          My dad was very good at teaching me the difference between things that can be undone and things that cannot. His reminder to me when I’d leave the house as a teenager was to “not do anything that can’t be undone,” and we’d have long talks about what those things were — killing someone else or myself driving drunk, getting pregnant (an abortion is not “undoing” it, as it has consequences of its own), etc. I can’t wait to see him next month and talk to him about this idea of regret. I think he’ll have some useful advice and perspective. Hmmm…. I suspect a post will result! 🙂

  5. Pingback: A response to “Regret” | Four is a Family

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