I often hear people proclaim, “I have no regrets!” or, “I live life without regrets.” As if having regrets is a bad thing, a disappointment, something to be ashamed of. When I looked up the word regret here is what I found:
v. to feel sorry, repentant or upset about
v. to bemoan or grieve the death or loss of
n. a sense of repentance, guilt or sorrow, as over some wrong done or unfulfilled ambition
n. a sense of loss or grief
I have grown up thinking regrets were bad, something to be ashamed of. If you have regrets you’ve made a lot of mistakes, bad choices, wrong decisions. We look in awe and wonder at the person who proudly proclaims, “I have no regrets! I live in the moment. What’s past is past.” They have something we long for. The ability to move forward with a positive attitude and outlook no matter or in spite of past circumstances. The strength and conviction they exude is captivating, enviable.
In taking a close look at the above definitions I see something different. Regret is described as feeling sorry, either by owning your part in whatever happened, whether done by you, to you, because of you or in spite of you, or simply because someone other than you is hurting. In raising my children I have taught them, sometimes we are sorry, not because we did anything wrong, but because the other person is hurting.
“I’m sorry you didn’t win your match today.”
“I’m sorry you missed out on the family trip to Venezuala.”
“I’m sorry your cat died.”
I may have had nothing to do with what caused the pain, and yet there is pain. Feeling sorry doesn’t always mean we did something bad.
Repentant, on the other hand, is feeling sorry or regret for something you did (or didn’t do). This does require ownership in having done something that resulted in a negative outcome, whether to yourself or someone else.
“I’m sorry I hit your car when I swerved to miss the baby ducks crossing the road. I feel terrible about it.”
“I’m sorry my being late to pick you up caused you to miss your flight home. I really screwed up this time.”
Even in being repentant, accepting my part in making a mistake which had a poor outcome for myself or others, does not equal the gravity of what I thought a life of regret held. Instead, by owning my part, I become aware of my human nature, my selfish desires, my character defects. As I recognize my defects I have a choice, I can work on them or I can make excuses for them and continue living the same as I always have. Some defects may get better in time, others may never go away. If that’s the case, why would I work on them? Why do we work at anything? If we have a job, why do we work towards a promotion? If we have money, why do we invest it for it to grow providing a greater return? If we can eat raw food, why do we learn how to cook food? Why not? You might think, all of those examples were taking something you have that is good and making it better. A defect on the other hand is something bad, negative. It’s different. That’s true. If we can work at good things and make them even better, why not try working at ‘bad’ things and see if we can’t make them better as well?
For example, one of my character defects, which has caused me regret on more than one occasion, is my tongue. My sharp tongue, to be more exact. I have a way with slinging words at someone when I feel afraid, offended, backed into a corner, questioned or judged. I could write it off as a coping mechanism which became a necessary tool during my upbringing. Or I could say it is a side effect of the verbal, emotional, mental and physical abuse I endured in my first marriage. Both are understandable and both are an excuse for something I do that hurts others. My first step was recognizing it. Then I determined I didn’t like it and wasn’t willing to just live behind my excuses or reasons. Now I am working on noticing when I am doing it, about to do it, in an effort to find alternative actions to alleviate what is causing me to feel the need to lash out and change my action. Have I mastered it? Heck, no! Not yet, but I am working on it.
Lastly, a sense of sorrow over missed opportunity or unfulfilled ambition. I have a feeling this is the one most people are referring to when they state they have no regrets. I would question just how honest they are being, with themselves more so than with me. What would life be without any regrets? Don’t we all grow up with dreams, ambitions, grandiose plans of what we will do, who we will become, where we will go? Only to find not all of it comes to pass. If you are at all like me, you found yourself pregnant at the young age of seventeen, long before going to college. Even before graduating high school. Do I regret it? Yes. I regret not graduating high school. I regret giving myself heart, mind and body to someone who turned out not to love me the way I thought he did. I regret disappointing people who loved me and had hopes and dreams for how my life would go. I regret what my life could have been had I made different choices.
If I said, I didn’t have regrets, I wouldn’t be being honest. I made choices that affected so much, for myself and for others around me. There is one part I do not regret, and that is keeping my daughter. Choosing to not have an abortion, choosing to raise my child, was the right choice for me. It wasn’t easy, not in the beginning and not for a very long time. It was hard work and came with a string of regrets as I muddled my way through it. Every one of those regrets were an opportunity for me to own my part or turn the other way, blaming someone or something else. I did my fair share of turning the other way. blaming others for my actions and my circumstances.
Feeling sorrow for missed opportunities allows me to see what I did, what I could have done differently, or what I simply have to accept did not turn out the way I had hoped it would. I don’t want to ignore or dismiss instances in my past which may not have had the outcome I desired simply so I can live ‘without regret’ or feel good about myself.
A wise uncle of mine said, “For me regrets occur when looking back at things I cannot change…. lessons on the other hand occur when I look ahead and see things I can hope to do better.”
In that regard, I would say I look back at my regrets and contemplate how I might do things differently going forward. Whether given the same opportunity again, or a completely different circumstance where what I learn from my past regret can help guide a better outcome.