We all have regrets. If we don’t have them, we should have them. They are an important part of life, especially as we get older and look back at life. I have been doing a bit of regretting recently. The older I get, the more I notice the many regrets I have acquired over my 73 years. Regrets can come at any time of life, from toddlerhood to the senior years. Most of my regrets are related to the words, judgments, and decisions I made as a youth. I’d like to talk about what regrets are, how they come in various sizes and kinds, how they help us, how they hurt us, and how we can accept regrets as a normal and necessary part of life. But before I wax eloquent on such matters, let me tell you, as a way of my own self-examination, a few of the regrets I have, mostly in my youth.
Childhood: I regret…
Throwing a toy metal gun at Danny Mallet. I hit him on the head and he went home bleeding. Danny was my best friend at that time and lived just a block away. I had seen cowboys in movies do such things when they ran out of bullets. It seemed like a good thing at the time. It wasn’t. I think I was about eight.
Telling Suzie Blanchard that she was adopted. I was in third grade, I think, and Suzie was in fourth. Some of her friends and she were teasing me about something that I have long forgotten. I was simply hurt, and reacted out of hurt. I threatened Suzie that I would tell her something about her that she didn’t know, but she egged me on and so I blurted out the fact that she was adopted. Obviously it was unwise of my parents to tell me this family secret in the Blanchard home, and probably unwise for Suzie’s parents to tell my parents, but that is not the point. I was the one who inflicted the pain on someone who was a good neighborhood friend. My action was very unkind.
Insisting that my mother make a different Halloween costume because I didn’t like what she had made. She accommodated like she often did and indulged me, sewing furiously on Halloween night so I could go out trick-or-treating. This insistence of mine, while typical of many children, was simply selfish. I wish I could have just worn the batman costume she had already made for me.
Talking out of turn and talking too much. This, of course, is part of my extraverted nature and is understandable. Over the years I have I have, over the years, said too many things that I now regret: silly things, stupid things, kid things, loud things. Thank goodness my teachers had a bit more liberty “back then” to smack me onside the head or rap my knuckles. This speaking without forethought, much less the possible negative effect of such talk, has been a theme of my entire life. I regret the content, volume, and timing of many of my words over the entirety of my 73 years.
Adolescence: I regret…
Failing to work hard in sports, like working out, practicing shooting baskets, being more physically aggressive in football practice: just getting better. My athletic skill was a bit above average, but I didn’t improve on it even though I went out for seven different sports in high school. The consequences of this lack of working hard at athletics were several, mostly that I was never particularly good at anything; just above average in several things. I didn’t make the basketball team as a senior because I didn’t practice enough; I played football for four years, but didn’t make a letter because I didn’t hit harder. I didn’t improve my golf from bogey, which it still is 60 years later. I didn’t develop a good backhand in tennis. And having just watched an old favorite movie of mine “Chariots of Fire”, I am reminded that I certainly didn’t work at the hurdles in track.
Lack of an adolescent sex life. I dated profusely and was usually going with at least one girl all the time. I had too much interest in girls without consequent sexual involvement. I wanted to have some kind of sexual contact just like any other normal adolescent boy but I wouldn’t let myself actually seek it. The best I could do was a bit of kissing and hand-holding. I used to pride myself in this lack of adolescent sexual activity thinking that such is promiscuity. I think quite differently now. I think my absolute abstinence hurt my personal, relational, and sexual development.
In a related development in adolescence, I regret going steady during much of my senior year. I would much have preferred to have dated the 25 girls that I had planned to do. (I got teased about this statement that was printed in the school newspaper when I answered what I wanted to accomplish during my senior year. I also wanted to make four sports letters and get a 4.0. Didn’t succeed in any of these endeavors. I did, however, have four dates in one day getting progressively later to each date as the day wore on.)
Being tardy to my classes. This is also a lifelong problem and a lifelong regret. I was late to class and even later getting my homework done, and particularly late getting my term papers done. I did quite well in high school nevertheless, like mostly A’s and a few B’s. C’s were unacceptable although I got a C in psychology of all things one quarter. This tardiness came directly from my tardy-inclined family; I say I inherited it. But I knew it was irresponsible. My tendency towards tardiness began in childhood and continued into college and well into my adult life. After a 4.0 my first semester in college, I got a 1.73 three semesters later, largely due to my tardiness in studying, preparing, and planning.
Being too “good”. I didn’t swear, drink, smoke…”or go with girls who do.” I made these decisions out of my evangelical Christian orientation thinking such abstinence was the right thing to do. I’m glad for many of the results of this early decision, like not smoking during these addiction-prone years, but I regret thinking that such choices made me think I was better than other people or a better Christian.
Young adulthood: I regret…
Continuing to be less than consistent in my college grades. After starting with that 4.0, I failed to work diligently at my classes and graduated with very mediocre grade point, a fact that limited my graduate school possibilities.
Getting around requirements, whether in undergraduate or graduate studies. Jim Kirk of Star Trek fame once said that he “cheated death” until it hit him in the face. I cheated on some things like really learning Statistics and a foreign language…this despite having studied some seven different languages, none of them with any proficiency. I wish I could speak fluent French or read Latin. There is so much richness in language.
Failing to marry my first love, Bonnie. She was my first friend, starting at age four or five, but then with absences of years or a decade, she came back into my life. Unfortunately, I was unable to untangle myself from another relationship and trust my true feelings.
Getting married at 22. I didn’t want to get married although I think I loved my first wife (who knows when looking back 50 years). But the reason I got married was largely due to the fear of her disapproval and hurting her. I have called this “men’s greatest fear” in another blog (fear of female disapproval). This was false guilt and I didn’t manage it. I might have married Sandy later, but I doubt it. We were just too different in many important ways, like cultural background and ways of evaluating the world.
Failing to get divorced when I really didn’t want to stay married. False guilt again. From one bad decision to another bad one.
Having only two children. I wished I could have had a dozen…well, perhaps four or five. These early life decisions are so important and often made without thought, much less deep feeling.
Going to the wrong seminary. Seminary was very good for me but I chose to go to a very conservative one, transferred to another one slightly less conservative for my last year. I ended up fighting (I thought it was discussing) with professors who couldn’t deal with my wider theology and philosophy. Not their fault; they were good men (men, of course). I should have left these conservative seminaries and found a place that could accept my broader view of life help me broader my view of life. I wasted too many too many years trying to justify my developing theology rather than finding teachers who could assist me in this development.
Not much here, interestingly. I took a couple right turns that should have been left turns, but I don’t seem to have much regret for the past 40-odd years. I should have left my first marriage much sooner; I should have pursued writing sooner; I should have left Council Bluffs sooner, and many other thing I should have done sooner.
We literally did buy the swamp land, but it happened to be in northern Wisconsin, not Florida. Luckily, buyers’ remorse set in overnight and we canceled the purchase and then went on to find our lovely cabin farther north.
I continued to struggle with some of the themes of my earlier years, like tardiness and fear of disapproval, but these have largely faded.
The nature of regret
When I read about people who have felt regret, expressed regret, and moved beyond regret, I am impressed with what appears to be their character development: they can admit to their mistakes. I believe John Kennedy was the last President we have had who admitted to error and regret, namely the flawed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Interestingly, our country has not recovered from this presidential mistake 60 years ago. We have lost 60 years of contact with a good neighbor, albeit a neighbor that has a different political persuasion. Other Presidents have been less inclined to admission of error and regret, much less restitution.
As we consider the nature of regret and perhaps how to profit from regret and overcome it, we need to look at the different kinds and sizes of regrets, the lasting effects of the regrets, the effect of other people’s feelings about the things you regret, and any possible restitution for the mistakes that have led to regret. The hallmark of a person with developed character is the ability to admit to error.
Kinds and sizes of regrets:
I have noted the many things I said over my 73 years, somewhat stimulated, but not caused, by my extraverted nature.
Things not said
Introverts are more inclined to regret having failed to speak rather than wishing that they had not spoken.
Here also we have a personality characteristic, namely being a doer. Doers (like me) tend to do too much, ask too much of other people, and die earlier. Doers tend to make mistakes in doing too quickly and too rashly. The doers of the world simply do more than people of other personalities, like dreamers. Doers do a lot for the world, but they tend to do too much.
Things not done
The opposite characteristic of the doer is the dreamer. Dreamers tend to think of what they might do but fail to take a chance of doing something that might be wrong. Interestingly, it is the dreamers of the world who have made profound differences in the world, making the world a better place. Sadly, most dreamers of the world do not have the wisdom and courage to truly do their dreams.
The Bay of Pigs invasion was a big mistake. So was the Viet Nam invasion. So was the Iraq invasion, and probably Afghanistan. Big mistakes can also be marrying the wrong person or be buying the wrong house, perhaps in the wrong area of the city or in the wrong city. A bigger mistake might be keeping the house or the spouse. Big mistakes can be these life’s mistakes, or they can be mistakes that brought significant harm to another person
These are like buying some swamp land in Florida or Wisconsin because it seemed right at the time. Or even buying a car that seemed pretty and fun, and then realizing that you needed something more practical. Other little mistakes can be ordering something for dinner that didn’t really suit you because, perhaps, it was cheaper, or working too hard to make the boat motor work even though you rarely use the boat.
The lasting effects of things regretted
We Americans yet suffer the result of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Viet Nam invasion, and the invasions in the Middle East: millions of people dead or wounded, trillions of dollars wasted, and countless lives ruined.
I know of many people who were married for the wrong reason, like getting pregnant, “being in love” without out any awareness of marital responsibility, or “because the invitations were already mailed”, God forbid.
And there may be the lasting effect of simply having sex with someone, perhaps the wrong person who pursues the partner because of false guilt or false love.
There are many lasting effects of mistakes made with one’s body, like working too hard or too long, or in the wrong job for the wrong reason, like making a lot of money.
There are lasting effects of having married the wrong person and for the wrong reason, as I did. There is even a larger regret of having married at all, like many gay people do because they want the typical family.
There are lasting effects on other people, particularly their feelings of hurt. I wonder how many people are yet hurt (and angry and resentful) for things said or done years in the past. I know of many people who still lick their wounds from events long past. Others’ hurt and resentment can have an effect on the person who caused the original hurt. I wonder how many people I have hurt over these 73 years….
Restoration, restitution, relationships, and reflections
Your own restoration is based primarily on honest regret. The initial stage of regret is one of sadness. I have previously written about the centrality of sadness in emotional maturity, and my wife, Deb, and I have recently published a book on the subject. You are restored when you are initially sad at the mistake you have made and have a certain amount of sadness. As we have written, sadness is born of love. If you regret what you have said or done (or not said or not done), you admit that you loved something and lost it. You may love truth but told a lie, perhaps lying to yourself. Or you may have hurt someone, or hurt yourself. In all these cases you have lost something you loved, whether it was something physical, someone personal, or some idea you had. You are restored when you no longer feel sad. This doesn’t mean that you no longer regret your error. It simply means that you have finished feeling sad, and now have only the memory of your mistake.
You may need to make some restitution for the error of your ways. This might simply be an apology or words of sorrow for your mistake. Or it may mean some kind of physical or financial restitution. You can even make restitution when you can’t afford to repair the hurt or harm you have done because the essence of restitution is not in bricks or mortar, much less money. It is a feeling of regret borne of love and shown in kindness.
Relationships are not the core of regret. In fact other people’s feelings should not be the primary reason you regret your actions or words. You may have hurt someone, but his or her feelings are not the primary reason for feeling sorry. You should regret what you said or did because it was wrong in your eyes, not someone else’s. Furthermore, you may regret something that the other person thinks was just fine, or you may not regret something that he or she thinks was just terrible. To truly regret something is to mature. As you mature, you become better at relationships: more honest, more loving, more generous, and also more limiting. Maturity is giving freely, not dependent on what your friend wants you to give, not dependent on your friend’s feelings. The more mature you become, the fewer regrets you have. Maturing through regret requires honest reflection on your past behavior so that you can be a better person.
Reflections on regret lead us to more honest self-disclosure and can often turn out for good, or even for the better.
The regrettable things I said and did as a child taught me that I have the unfortunate capacity to hurt and harm people. It has been painfully hard to learn to keep my mouth shut, and when I open it, to use care and wisdom. Likewise with what I do.
While I regret not having married Bonnie, I believe she was (and is?) happily married but did not conceive biological children. I did have two wonderful girls, but perhaps might not have had this opportunity if I had married Bonnie.
It is very likely that I still play sports somewhat because of my lack of high school consistency in sports. I play very active basketball as well as a bit of golf, swimming, and hiking. And when lucky, a bit of waterskiing (Thanks, Bud). And I even work out.
My lack of adolescent sex at least prevented some kind of sexual addiction, and possibly an STD.
My abstinence from alcohol in high school and college, despite my membership in a fraternity, kept me from any kind of alcohol-related difficulties. I love a glass of wine, but I have never been drunk.
There were many things I learned having been wrongly married and having stayed wrongly married for too many years. These learnings have made me a better person , a better husband, and a better therapist
I have conquered my lack of quality in things that I do (like my former lack of improvement in sports), and evidently I needed the better part of my 70 odd years to learn the value of planning, thinking, and quality.
Many people have been served by the things I have learned through my mistakes and the consequent regrets. I know I am good at what I do, and I am limited and flawed as well.
Importantly, looking at the good things that have resulted from my mistakes and consequent regrets does not justify these mistakes, nor does it take the pain associated with them away. Only sadness, true sadness, finishes the mistakes and losses we have in life.
I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s statement, “All things work out for God for those who love God.” Or as “Papa” in The Shack said, “I don’t cause the bad things that you do or the bad things that happen to you. I make them useful to you.”
The Positive Power of Sadness by Deb Brock and Ron Johnson. Available through our office, at most book stores and at Amazon.
Previous blogs on sadness and Men’s Greatest Fear
The book or the movie, The Shack