Thursday, 12 July 2012
Aging and Regret
Thank you for your condolences yesterday for my cold virus. You know what it's like and it's my contention, too, that it's worse than when we were younger. I'm not sure if that's age or if we have more virulent viruses nowadays, but I'm mostly sleeping.
As bad as I feel, I cannot stay in bed all day and a comment from a reader named Sam piqued my interest. Referencing my sadness at no longer living in New York, he suggested that regret would be an interesting topic for a blog post.
Although my brain may be too fevered for something so complex, I'm going to take a stab at Sam's request.
We've done regret here at least once before but a single discussion does not exhaust its potential. Regret is a natural interest for old people particularly if we follow Carl Jung's advice to undertake in later years a life review.
Moreso than some other emotions, regret is as changing and shifty as sand under our feet so it probably needs to be reconsidered from time to time.
Although psychologists would insist otherwise, I don't believe there are any experts on regret beyond each of us individually and I can't give you guidance about it beyond what I find with a little research and my own thoughts to get you started.
For most people, regret is about having been wrong. Within it there can be elements of sadness, shame, guilt, embarrassment, remorse, anguish, disappointment, self-reproach, perhaps grief. It's complicated. However, almost universally, old people who are asked don't regret what they have done nearly as much as what they have not done.
Here is a list of top five regrets among a survey of dying people that I've saved for awhile. Unfortunately, I neglected to include the source, so you'll have to trust me. All five involve a road not taken, something not done. These people wished they had
- stayed in touch with friends
- had let themselves be happier
- had the courage to express their feelings
- had not worked so hard
- had lived life more true to themselves rather than what others expected of them
For me, those sound squishy and mild - but who am I to say what becomes important when you know you're dying and time is short.
Generally, I don't have regrets. This could be just a matter of semantics but instead of regret, I have many things I wish I had not done (rather than left undone). Mostly, they involve having hurt others – way too frequently and the pain can be devastating.
The only way of dealing with it I've ever devised is to lock myself away from the world for a day or two and wallow in it, suffer, weep, scream, feel how mean I have been and when I've exhausted myself, sleep for awhile and then get back to living.
What I can usually come to is that although I (once again) did not live up to my ideal behavior, I did the best I could at that moment which sometimes is just awful. Awful, because I am human and selfish and unthinking and unkind and stupid too, but I'm not special enough to be the worst person in the world. Besides, sometimes I can be admirable too.
But I don't suppose that's what those dying people were talking about in those five regrets. And it's certainly not equivalent to regretting a tattoo later in life or wishing you'd gone to college or traveled more. Piffle, the three of those – to me, anyway.
Sam is correct. When I think about it, I am sad not to be living in New York. I prefer to live a city life – that particular city's life. To walk the familiar streets where I know so much history and where I can pass hundreds, maybe thousands of places where incidents from 40 years of my life took place. Where I am comfortable.
But that is not regret which strongly implies that I could have made another choice. I could not.
It is, instead, lamentable that to meet the imperatives of affordable shelter and food, I had to leave the place where I feel most at home and I get to be sad about it now and then.
Here are a few things other people have said about regret:
“Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves - regret for the past and fear of the future.” - Fulton Oursler
Forget regret, or life is yours to miss.” - Jonathan Larson
“Never regret. If it's good, it's wonderful. If it's bad, it's experience.” - Victoria Holt
“Regret is insight that comes a day too late.” - Unknown
There are hundreds of quotations like these that reject regret and as I said above, I don't recall ever regretting something I've not done. I have noted it sometimes, wondered how my life might have turned out differently if I'd done this instead of that, gone hither instead of yon, said yes instead of no but it seems a waste of time as there is no way to know.
Or, all this may be the ravings of a virus-infected mind. Now tell us what you think about regret in the comments.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jackie Harrison: Hokey Golf