“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 and disappointment. We have all given our lives to something, or pursued a dream that turned to ashes – we all carry waste. And yet … it is coming face to face with this ‘waste’ and recognising that nothing that has come into our lives is a waste, all is carried in the hand of Providence. My choices, my failures, my regrets, they are there to shape who I am, and I will not allow them to poison me, neither do I consent to be their victim.
Friend, you will hold regret. Make your peace with it. We have very little control over our lives and we make the choices and decisions given us at a certain moment with a certain mindset. Look gently on your past and show that same grace to others. And now, Carpe Diem, embrace a new day … live life and realise regret is simply part of living.
“We can—and will—move forward as soon as we have completed and lived the previous stage. We almost naturally float forward by the quiet movement of grace when the time is right—and the old agenda shows itself to be insufficient, or even falls apart. All that each of us can do is to live in the now that is given. We cannot rush the process; we can only carry out each stage of our lives to the best of our ability—and then we no longer need to do it anymore!” – Richard Rohr –
I was confused. This cannot be happening. They are lying. They have to be lying. If they are not lying then what I believed with such fierce devotion was a farce! What can I believe now? If I had the words back then, that is pretty much how I would have summed up the moment when I realised Santa Claus was not real! My young four years of firmly embedded belief in a man with a white beard and red jumpsuit that brings presents just came crashing down like a Jenga block tower.
Our childhood ‘Santa Claus’ moment repeats itself throughout our lives. Nowadays, I call it ‘waking up in the Matrix’. If you have seen that famous movie, you know that it is the moment that Neo decides that knowing the truth is more important than living the comfortable illusion – he takes the red pill and begins to see the Matrix for what it really is. Once you see, you cannot unsee …
For people of faith, waking up in the Matrix, can be a most difficult process. The moment we realise that our lived reality is not always connected to our tightly-held religious ideals. Perhaps it is because so much of what has been called ‘faith’ is actually fear: fear of losing our faith, fear of an angry God, fear of ‘hell’, fear of falling down some ‘heretical’ rabbit hole of no return, fear of not measuring up …
There is great comfort in the controlled environment of total assurance and absolute certainty. It is a blissful space … blissful until a time of severe suffering and crisis, when in a moment of total openness and honesty we admit that some of the ideas we have been told to believe actually stand juxtaposed to who we really are and what we have experienced. Like frightened turtles we tuck our heads back into our shell and pretend that this is not happening. We keep saying the same things, nodding enthusiastically at the same cliches, desperately wishing ourselves back into the Matrix … but we cannot go back. The gates have shut. Grace has shut those gates.
The second half of life often calls us to put away ‘childish ways’. What has kept us in the first half, no longer sustains us in the second half of life. We begin to wake up to some of our embedded ideals and how they have motivated and shaped us – and some of these we have to let go of. It is a bit like what Jesus talks about in Luke 5 – in order to hold the new wine of the second half of life, you have to have new wine skins. It is the time to ‘fear not’ (mentioned so many times throughout the sacred text). It is the time that you are asked to step out of the boat, like you have perhaps been singing about for decades.
Richard Rohr would say that the first half of life is all about building boundaries and fences that protect our identity, security and survival. These are Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs.’ The first half of life is about ego and certitude. It is an important part of development. However, then we come to the second half of our lives, a place where we have to learn to dismiss some of the ‘loyal soldiers’ and where we open ourselves up to the grace of risk, vulnerability, surrender and trust. A place where we can no longer look at the Matrix with blinded enthusiasm.
So to my friends, those of you who are finding that some of what you believed with such fierce devotion no longer holds true to who you are and who you are becoming, let me acknowledge the pain you are experiencing in that disconnect. You feel like you are flying through the air, after letting go of a very comforting trapeze, and praying like crazy that there is something out there to meet you.
For those waking up in the Matrix …
Trust Love over fear
Trust Grace over shame
Trust Hope over despair
Trust that the Seeker does find
That the Blind do see
That the Deaf do hear
That Questions are holy
That Kindness is the language of the universe
That you … You are loved
There is a deeper voice of God, which you must learn to hear and obey in the second half of life. It will sound an awful lot like the voices of risk, of trust, of surrender, of soul, of “common sense,” of destiny, of love, of an intimate stranger, of our deepest self … the true faith journey only begins at this point. Up to now everything is mere preparation.