Carole Carson: Joyful Aging — Dealing with regret
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that of the 6 million accidents each year, the majority involve left turns. Evidently, we could dramatically reduce our accident rate if we made three right turns and eliminated left turns.
Similarly, if this idea could be applied to life’s decisions and we made only the right ones, we could eliminate regrets.
Alas, regrets are realized retrospectively while life is lived prospectively. We get no do-overs. Whatever happened to trigger regret is immutable history.
James Baldwin wrote that when more of our days are behind us than in front of us, we begin to assess our actions and, in some cases, inactions. More bluntly, Benjamin Disraeli said, “Youth is a blunder, Manhood a struggle and Old Age a regret.”
The emotional work in the final quarter of life—where we face regrets—can’t be avoided without numbing ourselves with food, drugs or compulsive work. Yet if we don’t address regrets, we risk letting “yesterday take up too much of today,” according to John Wooden, UCLA Hall of Fame basketball coach. And researchers tell us that burdensome regrets can negatively impact our health.
In thinking about my regrets, I have categorized them into three groups: fleas, mules and elephants. A flea-size regret is not making a list before I go to the grocery store. Besides wasting money on impulse purchases, I go home without some of the items I came for.
A stubborn mule-sized regret is the four pounds I’ve gained hibernating during the pandemic. (Thomas Jefferson said we never regret eating too little. He was right.)
An oversized elephant regret—one that can fill the room—is estrangement from my oldest son.
The fleas and mules are manageable. Elephants, however, are very painful. For these, I rely on four strategies.
Strategy One: Remorse and repair
Looking back on my behavior, I have to come to terms with whatever shortcomings led to the outcome that I regret. This is not a simple task since it is far easier to view oneself as a victim than it is to take responsibility for what happened.
The second part of this work is to repair the damage. This may involve an apology to make amends. If the person is no longer living, then creativity is required to find a way to move forward.
Strategy Two: Recontextualizing
In my 20s, I made a left turn when I married someone I barely knew after a brief, whirlwind courtship. For years, I regretted the decision; however, with the perspective of time, I’ve changed my point of view.
Were it not for being forced into the role of breadwinner for my family after my marriage failed, I never would have pursued a career that has brought me tremendous joy and satisfaction. Moreover, were it not for the disastrous marriage, I would not have the children and grandchildren whom I cherish.
Recontextualizing events has made many regrets disappear.
Strategy Three: Accepting my shortcomings
Self-compassion goes a long way. We humans are imperfect beings. We make mistakes. But we are not our mistakes! Most of the time, we are doing the best we can. Sympathy and forgiveness for the actions of our former self are appropriate.
Catriona Wrottesley, a psychotherapist, tells us that “being able to feel regret — the right kind of regret, which can be understood, worked through and can lead to remorse and repair — is the strongest sign of a life meaningfully lived, of a healthy mind.”
Strategy Four: Resolving to minimize future regrets
I can’t undo the past, but I can take responsibility for the present. Hence, one of my goals for 2021 is to make daily choices that minimize future regrets. I don’t want to begin today regretting what I did yesterday.
Living this way is daunting. However, the question “Will I regret this later?” is very powerful in keeping me in touch with my core values. Sometimes the answer stops me from doing something; other times, it causes me to act. In both cases, the notion of regret informs my actions.
Attempting to live this way becomes a remarkable journey of self-discovery. I’ve learned that regrets are my way of telling myself something is wrong. Instead of using regret as a stick to beat myself up, I’m using it as a guide to a better future.
I’m confident there is a place beyond regret—a place that leads us to a better understanding of ourselves and an acceptance of our flaws. And as a byproduct of accepting our own flaws, we become more compassionate with others.
Henry David Thoreau’s comforting words still ring true more than 150 years later: “To regret deeply is to live afresh.” I think he’s saying that every regret, however painful, gives us an opportunity to become a better person. That’s the gift embedded in regrets.
Carole Carson, Nevada City, is an author, former AARP website contributor, and leader of the 1994 Nevada County Meltdown. Contact: email@example.com
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