I can almost hear Sinatra singing My Way in the background as I start this post.
My sister-in-law has an unusual talent for asking questions that stay with me for a while. Last year, when she and my brother came for a visit, the question was whether I was happy with my life. Apparently, my brother mentioned that he thought I was and that he was happy that I seemed happy. My SIL was more direct – she asked me! I said yes, but it was not the most enthusiastic yes. If you look at the past several posts, you can probably understand why. More about this question in an upcoming post.
This year, the question was about regrets. She and I approach regrets differently – she feels regrets deeply and emotionally over time. I don’t. I have always tried to live without getting weighed down by regrets. Of course, I wish I had kept in touch with friends and had been more sensitive and thoughtful rather than hurting anyone’s feelings. But, that is one type of regret – contrition over a slight inflicted on someone or disappointment in myself. I think it’s more sorrow than regret – sadness that I did not act with grace. Sometimes, regret is expressed by self-reproach or guilt or wishing you had made other decisions. This is the kind of regret that erodes self-esteem and increases stress. Given that I like my life and am generally pretty happy, I don’t really have this kind of regret.
To be clear, as far as I know, I’ve never done anything to truly/seriously harm anyone – no accidents or brawling or abuse that resulted in someone getting injured, either physically, psychologically or emotionally. There are times when I know I hurt someone by my words or actions and I don’t know why I acted as I did. Most of those times were when I felt most vulnerable and scared, so that probably explains it. I am not sure I adequately apologized for these lapses in character but I hope no one ever suffered lasting repercussions and that anyone I hurt along the way has forgiven me.
So, yes, I have some regrets about in-the-moment reactions and moving on a little too completely. But, I don’t really regret the larger actions that I’ve taken, even if they were inconvenient for others. That may sound selfish, but the reality is that we all have to make decisions and those decisions sometimes affect other people. I have always tried to minimize the impact of my decisions on other people and hope not to have left damage in my wake. Of course, there are times when the needs of others supersede our own – if you have a child, for example, or a spouse, their needs at times may be more important than your own. As a single, childless person, I am more autonomous.
For the most part, I have tried to live in a way that gives others the benefit of the doubt and hopes they afford me the same courtesy. I have tried to act with integrity and kindness. I do my best to forgive easily and not hold grudges, though I have a bit of a temper myself so I know what it’s like to not curb a harsh response or to not let go of anger right away. I try to bring humor and light-heartedness to situations whenever possible. I assume that, if someone hurts me, it was not intentional and that I should let it go. But, I also will stand up for myself or even let go of a friendship if there seems to be a pattern of disrespect or pettiness.
When I really think about it, there are three strong memories that come to mind whenever I think about forgiveness and living without regrets. One is from one of my favorite jobs – a small nonprofit where I worked long hours for little pay (… the story of much of my life!). We made a list of 10 priorities and one of them was “assume good will”. This is why my first reaction to someone being disagreeable or severe with me is to try to let it go. Maybe they are having a bad day or have a lot on their mind or maybe they don’t realize that they have hurt my feelings. We never know what someone else is feeling or processing when they seem to lash out or say something thoughtless.
The second is from one of my earliest jobs when, as the newest and lowest-ranking member of the team, I was told by my supervisor that if we did not get the next grant, I would have to leave. It wasn’t personal – it was financial. They wanted to keep me on and would miss me if I had to go, but there was a point where hard decisions would have to be made. There was something about the business-like manner in which this was conveyed to me that made it OK to be straightforward with this particular life lesson – there didn’t need to be drama and regret. Sometimes, life is unfair and the results are hard to take. (BTW, we got the grant so I stayed on!)
The third strong memory is of a poem I came across when I was about 12 years old. Desiderata, written in the 1920s by Max Ehrmann, was quite popular at the time (attached below). It helped me to find peace after my father and aunt died. It’s surprising how many times I recall passages. The parts that comes to mind regarding regrets are: be on good terms with all persons, keep peace in your soul and, mostly, be gentle with yourself. For me, regrets hamper my ability to do these things.
We all make mistakes and most of us do the best we can with our life decisions. I believe that most people are caring and good people who sometimes (often unintentionally) hit a nerve or push our buttons. To me, unless you have done something truly and seriously terrible, life is too short to feel self-reproach or guilt or shame or to play the “what if” game about decisions made. As the song goes: “Regrets, I’ve had a few; but then again, too few to mention. I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption.” For all the good and caring people (i.e., those who have done something truly and seriously terrible, stop reading now), give yourself a break – be gentle with yourself.
GO PLACIDLY amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.