“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.”
– Soren Kierkegaard –
I still remember the first time I heard the notion of living life with no regrets. I was at a conference with several thousand attendees, our eyes glued to the platform as an over-excited person yelled at us: “Live your life on the edge, take the risk, no regrets.” Everyone cheered, including me, while conducting an inner argument: “That is totally absurd. Of course, we will have regrets, all of us in this room will have regrets. That is a nice, but an impossible idea.” Regrets, defined as feeling sad, repentant, or disappointed over something that we have or haven’t done, are part of human life.
Pithy quotes along the same lines as the adrenaline-pumped speaker are everywhere. We should ‘regret nothing’ and ‘not do anything differently’ if we had our lives over. Well, that’s just a load of bollocks, isn’t it? Imagine getting a second go at life with all the hindsight that you have acquired? Wouldn’t you do life differently or at least change a few things? I certainly would.
According to Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, who wrote ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying’, the list of regrets of those under her care were:
1. “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
Oh, I can relate to this one. I have spent the first half of my life taking on what I thought God and people expected of me like the typical ‘good girl’ (classic Type One for those familiar with the Enneagram).
2. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
Anyone else have their hand up? Yep, I was soooo important in my first half of life that I didn’t even have much time to visit my parents in Queensland. I was busy doing ‘God’s work’ … *Jesus face palms*
3. “I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.”
Expression of emotion is diverse amongst people and culture. Ware is referring to people who have bottled their feelings and kept them from their friends and loved ones.
4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
Life is all the sweeter with friends. There is something about history in friendship. A long-term friend is a treasure. Life is better in relationships. Nurture your friendships.
5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
We don’t often take time to reflect and contemplate on what brings true ‘happiness’. If we did, we might discover that the pursuit of the bigger house, sleeker car or the next promotion doesn’t feed our existential need and questions about the purpose of life. We may, however, discover that sharing a meal with our neighbour and tending to our garden does. Let’s learn from the dying – what makes you ‘happy’?
I have regrets in my life. None of them have to do with money or careers. I regret that I did not spend more time with my grandparents when I was growing up, and when I did see them that I didn’t listen more to their stories and wisdom. I regret that I accepted fundamentalist ideals without critique, ideals that hurt others, including my children. I regret spending so much time frantically being the ‘good girl’, trying to please a crowd that cannot be pleased while ignoring the rhythms of grace so readily available.
Regrets are part of life. I also believe that we can look regret in the eye, acknowledge it, make our peace with it, and then we can move on. We begin to realise that everything belongs, life is not meant to be lived perfectly. A life truly lived holds suffering and regret. The regret you carry from yesterday can determine the path you choose tomorrow. Regret, like suffering, can shape our lives in a most transformational manner.
Rob Bell’s podcast, ‘What to do with the Waste’, discusses regret