Regrets are Healthy in a Way
As human beings, all of us have experienced or continue to experience regrets in our life. Regrets can either be about things we have done or didn’t do. For example, we regret:
not quitting tobacco and alcohol in time, not making use of the opportunities that came our way, wasting precious time on frivolous things, being married to one’s present spouse, the friends of our past, holding onto the present job too long, not proactively practicing our faith, the life choices we have made, not correcting mistakes in time, the sins of our past, not spending time with children, not participating in spiritual retreats, not travelling around the world, decision on not to have children, time spent before TV and on social media, the extra-marital affair, not being an understanding and a kind spouse, not taking time to be with our aged parents, words used that can never be taken back, tone with which we speak to others, not standing up for truth, having been arrogant, indifference to acts of racism and violence, not setting apart time to work with a social/religious organization that is involved with the poor, holding onto resentments for too long, not reconciling with one’s estranged siblings, parents, friends…
At times we tend to regret even the good things we have done. For example, we might regret:
financially helping our families, in-laws, and friends, involving so much of ourselves in the lives of others and their problems, giving total freedom and independence to one’s spouse and children, encouraging children to think on their own and to pursue their dreams, spending too much of time volunteering at the church, local community, and charitable organizations, being extra generous with those in need, taking care of others…
How do we deal with regrets in our life? Unfortunately we have said things that should not have been said or didn’t say things that should have been said; did things that should not have been done or did not do things that should have been done. Irrespective of what we did or did not do, the point is, how do we respond to regrets, as feelings associated with knowledge from the past that still continues to direct our present, accompanied by a sense of shame and guilt and thus paralyzing the future? The first thing is to realize that it is alright to have regrets; it is part of growing up. To be free from the negative effect of regrets we need to own it and be responsible in accepting it and not placing the blame on others. What I did or failed to do is result of my own free deliberate choice but the liberating truth is we also have the power within us to turn it around for good.
Secondly, we need to realize that regret contains within it the seed for transformation. Our response to regrets has the power either to propel us forward to a meaningful and happy life or to constantly accuse us with a sense of guilt and shame. Peter denied Jesus and Judas betrayed Jesus as well. Both regretted what they did and suffered from guilt but responded in different ways. Peter used his regret to return to Jesus and Judas let his regret take his life. It is the difference in response that sets them apart. During the Easter Vigil, in the Exsultet we sing: O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer! The fall of Adam and Eve is perceived as a happy fault; the fall from the heavens is a loss but still contains a seed for rejoicing. It is because of Adam’s fault that we have gained a Savior. Can we face our regrets with the same attitude as ‘Oh happy fault?’ It is not that we have to fall to be a better person but to know that the very fall contains (within it) the seed to be a better person. Rising above our guilt and shame to realize that our regrets offer us tremendous opportunities for growth and to become what we are meant to be. The Prodigal Son regretted what he did and his regret brought him back to his Father. Regret opens the possibility of transformation; a journey to a new life.
The words of St. Paul are so encouraging: “where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more (Rom 5:20).” God’s grace enables us to rise above our falls and worst regrets to embrace a meaningful and purpose filled life. The fall of Peter, the fall of St. Augustine, the fall of Thomas Merton… show that regret leads to groundbreaking paths in our life. There is nothing to be ashamed of our falls and the eventual feeling of regrets, but in embracing and owning them, we bury them and in that burial is the new life awaiting us. What has happened has happened. There is nothing that can be done to undo it now. What is the use of regretting and staying in that state of mind for long? Life continues to offer new opportunities and so why waste our precious time and life crying over spilled milk? In life even the biggest mistakes contain moments of truth. Every fall and regret is a teaching moment if we are open to it. We become better people, better listeners, and more compassionate. Life is like water that meanders through various terrains. Let it flow. Don’t block it. It will lead you to where it is meant to take you. Trust God and the life God has given you. All will be well.
Thirdly, let us not regret the good we have done for others even if we had been taken advantage of or feel used. To do good and to share our gifts is our human nature. In doing so, we become God like. If the following had regretted what they had done:
Abraham leaving his land, Moses going into the desert, David turning away from his sin, John going into the desert, Jesus being incarnated, the apostles following Jesus, Saul becoming Paul, the holy men and women sacrificing their life for the wellbeing of others, Buddha not turning back to his palace, Rama opting for the forest, Ramana leaving his home, our parents’ with their sacrifices, friends reaching out to us in time of need…
Without their sacrifices and the good we have benefited from their acts where would we be? We are because of others’ goodness and acts of compassion. Isn’t time to pass on the goodness we have received, even if we are taken advantage of? Never regret the good we have done; continue to do good.
Fourthly, let us not let regrets ruin our unfulfilled dreams. Some of our regrets relating to our adulthood may be associated with unfulfilled dreams. Today, due to age, change of circumstances, and new responsibilities it may not be possible to realize those dreams in their fullness. It is OK to live with those unfulfilled dreams but now we can at least be open to a modified version realizing those dreams. If one couldn’t follow through with the felt ‘Call’ one can always follow ‘the call within the call’ and continue to serve the poor and the needy and still live a spiritual life in spite of one’s current responsibilities. One who could not become a commercial pilot can always pick up flying as a hobby now. Mastering various yoga asanas may not be possible but I can always do yoga as my body permits today. If I didn’t have time and resources to be a professional Ballroom dancer I can still learn dancing; dance now with abundant freedom and just for the joy of dancing. Nothing is too late in life as long as we don’t let our regrets prevent us from trying.
Never be ashamed of your falls and regrets and let them not control your life. In owning responsibility and accepting it we move beyond our falls and regrets to a new life. Regrets are associated with our past but life is always in the present. And God is in the present; live in God.