By Elizabeth Speth
Hindsight is two perfectly matched numbers. Two eyes wide open, with the benefit of a clear, long gaze. Sure, we can see it now… If only we’d known… What we would have done differently…
I wanted to give you, Gentle Reader, the gift of hindsight without the pain. I thought if I could take an overview, a wide sampling of others’ regrets, I could tie it up neatly and present it here, an offering, a ‘thank you for tuning in’, inoculation against future mistakes.
Using social media platforms like Facebook, I solicited feedback from friends and strangers.
‘What is your biggest regret?’ I wanted to know. Tell us. Tell us all what to do differently.
The answers came in a tidal wave. A lot of people wanted to unburden themselves. It was a lot of reading, and I was gratified at the response.
But I was very confused. Here are some representative excerpts, with grammar and spelling changes to minimize distraction.
— I regret cheating on my beautiful wife of 16 years. It ended our marriage, and I can’t even remember why I thought it was worth it at the time.
— I regret ever getting married. Stupid. And if you use my name, I will cut you. Ha ha. (Side note to self: Consider quietly unfriending this person after blog post is finished.)
— I so regret smoking cigarettes in my younger days.
— I should have done more decadent, dangerous fun things. I should have smoked, danced with strangers, taken a drink before passing the bottle along. A little. Playing by the rules sucks because you get to a point in life where no is tempting you to break them anymore.
— I wish I could have had a closer relationship with my mother.
— I regret letting my parents influence my life’s choices as much as I did. I should have taken about five steps back at adulthood. I ended up living their lives, even after they proved they weren’t very good at it themselves.
— I wish I’d joined the military.
— I regret joining the armed services. It wasn’t for me. It led to a career that wasn’t for me either. I’m 58 and just figuring out what I like to do, starting a new career. Do you know how stressful that is?
— I wish I’d ‘stopped to smell the roses’. As the cliché goes.
— I wish I’d gotten my allergies diagnosed sooner, figured out I shouldn’t be around anything that blooms, basically. I could have saved myself years of misery. Why suffer when you don’t have to?
Bewildering, right? Which is the course we’ll be sorry for? Eloping, or running off to join the ‘rock’n roll circus’, as one contributor put it?
It wasn’t just the voice of experience that piped up here, either. Regret is not the domain of the, shall we say, mature set. I will cite the case of the young man who, at the age of Three, received an ‘educational’ gift from his very old great-grandparent at Christmas. It was a set of magnetic letters, the kind you stick on the fridge and then forget for a decade. This young man’s parents had raised him well, teaching him the value of good manners even before he could string enough words together to form a lisping sentence.
“No thank you,” he said firmly, handing the present back to the bewildered and elderly relative. You know the end of that story. Great grandparent passes away soon after. Enough guilt to last a lifetime for our hero.
That’s not helpful to us, though, is it? How is knowing that version of regret going to change anything going forward? No one really did anything wrong there, did they?
Don’t get me wrong. There were some incredibly helpful lessons here:
“I regret a decade being a soccer parent, dedicating so much time WATCHING the kids play,” one mother said, citing the resources spent on hotels and traveling, only to place themselves at a remove from their children. They were together, sure, but separate. “I wish we had spent more time playing TOGETHER,” she said.
This was one of my favorite responses:
“All of my regrets seem to stem from a failure to be kind. They are all tied to unkindness. It’s as simple as that.”
A lot of you had regrets about ego and arrogance. Hubris. But your stories were funny when you told them. You laughed, poked fun at yourselves. I chuckled. It wasn’t so bad.
Then there is Tracey’s story. She is a friend of mine who kindly answered my Facebook plea for Tales of Regret, and she said I could use her name. She talked about ‘the usual suspects’ when it comes to regret. The first bad marriage, etc. During her first bad marriage, she used to play the guitar and sing. But her first bad husband told her she sounded terrible, and of course she believed him. Then she met her second wonderful husband, Kent. I’ll let her tell the rest. I can’t. It’s too hard.
“Kent, being Kent, researched guitars and bought me the best guitar he could find, a Martin, and gave it to me as a gift. I still haven’t picked it up to play it, but I will be ready someday. My one true regret involves that guitar, though. When my nephew John was a Senior in high school he took a class in learning to play the guitar his last semester. He had an old inexpensive guitar and I can vividly remember him practicing “Stairway to Heaven” in his bedroom over and over again. He came to me a few days before he had to take his final in that class in late May 2000 and asked me if he could borrow my Martin guitar to take his final with. Although the guitar had not been played in 15 years since my husband gave it to me, my first thought was how expensive it was and I didn’t want anything to happen to it. I immediately said no without thinking about it, putting a material object over my nephew’s desire to play my guitar for just a few minutes.
” John died of meningitis a couple of weeks later, just days after his high
school graduation. I will never, ever forget his request for such a small
thing and my selfishness in denying him it. I truly hope he is somewhere
playing Stairway to Heaven on a magnificent guitar and that he knows the
life lesson he taught me.”
At this point in the experiment, I began to resent the whole concept of regret.
What good does it do my dear friend Tracey, matriarch of large, strong family and overseer of a wide universe of well-loved friends? She had a moment of imperfection, of distraction. It is what humans are known for, how we are created. It’s our ‘signature move’. We make these mistakes. Speak in impatience. Overlook things. Make snap decisions. Do they define us? Absolutely not. And yet we do insist on carrying them forward, heavy and heartbreaking as they are.
Now for some good news. We need it.
A very, very healthy amount of you said you had no regrets. Well, you qualified it. You said things like ‘no significant regrets’, or ‘none that really stand out’. I’d say fifty percent of you, to my vast relief, articulated some version of that.
One person pointed out that the mistakes and resulting heartbreak “became entangled in the fabric of how I understand my life…sometimes it seems to me that what looks like costly mistakes are just part of one’s path.”
I won’t argue with that. It fills me with too much relief and joy.
“If you are not making mistakes, you are not living,” another opined. “This does not completely protect me from regret. My regrets come from not recognizing a (mistake) and then repeating it. I still do this a lot but less so than previously. Maybe I am finally growing up.”
Avoiding regret, someone pointed out, would have kept her from separating from her husband. Things worked out all right for them in the end. They got back together. But not before she figured out that part of their problems stemmed from not standing up for herself.
“Not speaking my truth and being my own advocate would be regret,” she said simply.
Me? I regret nothing. Well, that’s not true. I have been guilty of omissions of kindness. Hubris. Speaking in anger. Being human.
May it be ever thus. Flawed as we are, as someone once pointed out, we’re all just walking each other home.