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Regrets and Old Age

category_bug_journal2.gif About a month or so ago, there was an excellent discussion here about whether those of us who are childless elders have any regrets. If you missed it, you ought to go read the comments – it is a terrific, wide-ranging conversation.

Since then, I have occasionally pondered whether there are things I might now regret and I come up surprisingly empty. Am I overlooking something? I wondered. Am I too shallow or superficial to have regrets?

For as long as I've been old enough to philosophize a bit, I have believed that regret is waste of energy and haven't spent time considering it. When things didn't turn out well, I fixed what I could, moved on to something else or made the best of what I couldn't change.

Still, I don't think anyone can live for six or seven or more decades, as I have, without a few regrets. There must be something. Poking around the web for inspiration, I found there are at least two people who equate regret with old age:

“Regrets are the natural property of grey hairs.”
     - Charles Dickens

“Youth is a blunder; manhood a struggle; old age a regret.”
     - Benjamin Disraeli

Hmmph. Maybe it had something to do with the time and place they lived in; they were contemporaries in England in the mid-19th century. But no one can convince me that regrets are a normal accompaniment to age.

Do I wish I had traveled more? Learned another language? Married again? I suppose so, but none of them loom large as holes in my life now.

I do wish I had asked my parents more questions about themselves, their childhoods, their families. That's a common regret of many people.

And it would be better if I had not wasted so much time concerned about my appearance or spent so much money on expensive shoes. But who can take those things seriously as an old age regret? That was then; I eventually outgrew both of them.

There are some things I have done and said to people that hurt them – more than I like to recall and that still bothers me. On the other hand, there are many more times I should have spoken up and was too timid. Those, I think, are greater failings.

But again, I don't categorize such behavior as regretful. Not always, but mostly through the years, I have done the best I could at the time.

Maybe I don't have regrets because everything I have done, everywhere I have been, every experience I've had brought me to where and who I am today. Unless I'm fooling myself, I am content with that.

What about you?

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jeanne Waite Follett” Putting Dreams to Rest


I'm with you on this. There were moments - maybe a half-dozen - when I could have and arguably should have made a different choice; but any one of them would most likely have taken me somewhere other than where I am now, and I'm pretty happy where I am now. Who knows.

Your last paragraph said it all for me. We would not be who we are today (for good or bad) had we not done all the things we've done. It is all based on our choices, and I think we choose what we are supposed to, most of the time. Karma, you know.

I do not think having regrets equates with discontent. I have a number of regrets about things done or not done. But as you say, they are what helped me mature and be the person I am today. As long as the regrets do not change how you look at the days forward, they are fine. And I do think everyone has regrets...but they may not see them as such.

By and large, excepting the times I could have behaved better, either refraining or stepping up to the plate with regards to treating people better, I don't have large regrets. But, the kindly treating of others is partly what we are here for so, that is my regret.
I wouldn't be suprise to find that what I consider not well done is only in my mind and there are other things I can't even remember that others took exception to!
I think I sound like a "scrupe"!

When the subject of regrets arises, I always think of the song Frank Sinatra sang...I did it my way. I have a few regrets, like getting married at age 17, and not going to college. Years later I divorced him and went to college. By then I had three children so things turned out despite my lack of planning, becaue my kids are great. I would like to have been older and wiser before I had them but God knows if they would have turned out any better. I don't think so because they are all fine people today.

I sometimes regret one or two of the men I got involved with, but as one friend pointed out, you wouldn't be the person you are today if you never made mistakes.

I wish I weighed less, but I like myself, so I have no real regrets. Dianne

I don't know if this is a "regret," but I sometimes wish I'd had the courage I see in young women today to simply go do what they feel called to do. I'm thinking of women like Lynsey Addario who is a photojournalist who covers wars. (You may have read she just had an awful experience in Libya.) Or Eliza Griswold who has somehow written about life and conflicts all around the globe at the 10th parallel.

Even if I could have imagined such roles at their age, I don't think I would have been able to pursue them. It takes unusual courage, initiative and stamina even now to do such work, but at least they can imagine it. I might not have had the drive, but I know I didn't have the imaginative range at the time to even try. It was hard enough to be a lesbian working in construction when I was their age. :-)

I don't think that is really a regret; more a sort of acknowledgement that choices are always constrained by place, time -- and our individual characters. Arguing with that gets me nowhere, so mostly I don't. So I'm not much for regrets. Besides, I'm busy being who and I am and where I am now!

As others have mentioned, I don't really think in terms of regrets. When I started to read this, the lyric from My Way came to my mind "regrets I've had a few but then too few to mention." There were things I would have been wiser to have done but I can't say I regret them for the reasons others have mentioned. Some are big things like stopping one quarter shy of finishing my Bachelor's but I made that choice based on other choices at the time and they seemed right to me then (moving elsewhere, having a baby). When I think of something I really feel I should have done but didn't, I try to do something about it now and often I still can even if not the exact same thing as I might've years ago.

I regret being persuaded by my now ex-husband to move from UK to USA 25 years ago. Life for seniors in UK seems a lot better than here especially the health care.
(Don't have enough money to move back or I would have done so long ago)
I regret giving my children "roots and wings" It worked all too well!They confidently flew off and never looked back. I rarely hear from them now.

I had a regret about 9 years ago that I hadn't stayed in touch with my nieces (8 of them) and didn't really know them as adults. So I did something about it. I called them and my daughter together along with my sister-in-law. We've met every year since and have built wonderful bonds inter and intra generationally, including among their children. What a blessing they've become in my life.

Ronni - I think it's a sign of a life lived fully that we can look at our past actions without regret -reflect on them sometimes with sadness sometimes with laughter - and keep moving forward - sometimes like Grandmother Mary you can do something about those actions - but mostly we have to accept those times are gone and as your parents probably said often "what's done is done'.

Plato has Socrates say: "The unexamined life is not worth living." My greatest regret is that I waited until the end of life to examine my life. Bad timing! As we chug along, too much self-examination can be narcissistic, even paralysing. On the other hand, too little self-examination can allow us to repeat behavior which is self-destructive or hurtful to others.

"Know thyself!" Plato has Socrates enjoin us. Robert Burns added: “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us To see oursel's as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us, And foolish notion.” It's not enough, then, to "know yourself" -- you must also understand how you are perceived by others. A tall order and one which, I regret, I failed so often to fulfill.

I think when you look back over a life you should examine the total body of work. Like everyone I have plenty of regrets and no shortage of hurt I caused but overall feel I did far more good than bad and for me that is the only measure of a life. I look back occasionally and think about the choices I made and for the most part am at peace.

I have tried to think of any regrets I might have, but they are all small ones. I regret expecting too much of my son when he was little. He was my laboratory. I have other similar regrets, but if I had to do it all over given the same set of circumstances, I would probably do everything exactly the same way.

Are unfulfilled wishes regrets? If so, I regret not seeing the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and the Hermitage. That regret is balanced by the wonderful places I did see.

On reflection I don't think I have any large regrets about actions I took that would have changed my life.

Perhaps age teaches us how spending too much time regretting will place one firmly in victim-land.

Anyone who limits her vision to memories of yesterday is already dead.
Lillie Langtry

I regret not keeping a journal during my "renegade nun years" because it would have made a really fascinating book or memoir! I did find a bunch of old letters I had written but many of the best parts were left out! Of course, the letters were to my parents...

Re janinsanfran's "choices are always constrained by place, time - and our individual characters" and her commentary on the choices young women have today:

When I was starting out in the late 1950s, women's choices were primarily secretary, nurse and teacher.

Few of us were expected to go to college and we were not raised, as boys were then, to even think about our lives in terms of "careers."

It was more true than a joke back then to say that the few women who went to college were there for their MRS degree. (Check out the women of "Mad Men".)

Many of our generation have been among the people who helped change life for women and we should be proud of what we accomplished.

But we should not forget - or regret - that we simply were not prepared to think about our lives in the same way as women today.

For me, it turned out pretty well anyway. I eventually found a good career that I enjoyed, that educated me and took me places I wouldn't have dreamed of without it.

Place and time are important indicators of what can and cannot be.

I lived much of my earlier years with regrets. Through a maturing spiritual journey, I finally came to realize that the regrets for unkindnesses or neglected opportunities for helping others were not really from concern for others but from a self-centered expectation of perfection from myself.

On rare occasions the old habit will crop up. Some months ago grown sons and I were reminiscing. I mentioned that I did have a few regrets about not doing some things better when they were growing up. Oldest was aghast. He got me back on the right track with his question, "Don't you think we turned out all right?" Definitely.

Commenter Jeanette Campbell sums it up well for me on living life consciously and abundantly.

Every choice we make, every path we take, forms us and readies us for the next choice. There were times I regretted a decision, but as I look back now, I see that I wouldn't be where I am today without having made those choices and learned from those mistakes.

Whew. Thanks for the great post and comments. I sometimes felt guilty because I had no regrets (except for little things) and some of the choices I've made have been very wrong. It's is nice to know that other random people don't have regrets either. Everything I ever did brought me to now and I'm happy with that. No guilt.

A friend of mine, a man a couple of years older than I am, said, "Your generation has done very well."
Let's take credit for that.

Regrets? Yes, a few, but I've moved on. It is oh-so-true that women born in the late 1930s (as I was) and even into the late '40s, were conditioned to think of their options in life very differently than the women of subsequent generations. I wish I had known someone like Sandra Day O'Connor when I attended the same university she did a few years later. Maybe I wouldn't have frittered away what I now recognize as an unparalelled opportunity to get an outstanding education and perhaps help change our world, as she did.

But, no! I was a Party Girl back then and pretty much followed that well-worn but misbegotten path for the next 20 years. Eventually I cleaned up my act, went back to grad school, built a satisfying career and married the greatest husband a woman could wish for.

However, some years ago I got knocked down by the early conditioning that never went away entirely. By an accident of fate, I was given the chance to serve as CEO of the nonprofit where I've worked since 1975. Much to my total dismay, it quickly became apparent that I was ill-suited to a top leadership role. Feminist though I thought I was, I simply didn't have whatever it took.

I'm basically an introvert, and perhaps that tells some of the story, but I'm a female introvert raised in the '30's and '40s, which I think tells it all. Unlike Judge O'Connor, Gloria Steinem and many others, I wasn't able to rise above my history. (I'm not as smart as they are either.) Anyway, I stepped down after a year and guided our Board in handing the reins to a Baby Boomer female, who has been an outstanding CEO for the past 10 years! So there it is. I don't regret it much any more, but I did for a long time. It made me re-think who I am.

Only regret I have is that computers have made me wish I had been born 30 years later so that I would have more time to enjoy what computers and the Internet give us nowadays!!
Otherwise, not a regret to my name. I always felt that I did what I had to do at the time and stage I was in in my life ...and old age is not for wasting time in regrets over something that cannot be changed.

I wish I'd asked more questions and kept better records, but only about the lives of the people I love and my own memories.

Thank you Ronni, and everyone who commented on this post! After reading this I've just realized that my life, especially lately, has been filled with regretful thoughts. It's never occurred to me that place and time figured so importantly into my towering mountain of life's disappointments...I've thought all these years it was just my own failings. Thank you.

When my Dad was the age I am now, 70+-, he began asking me pointed questions about how he and Mom had raised us. And he apologized for a couple of things, constantly moving us around for one. I think that it takes this long to have the time to glance back and assess where you've been. I too have apologized for a couple of things to my kids, can't change the facts, but I think it's good to acknowledge once again I have shortcomings and can correct them. That's the only use I can see in regretting anything.

I wish I'd known a lot sooner that I was a being and not a doing.

I guess I'm thinking about the difference (?) between regrets and losses or if there is a difference. I regret the lost of my son at age 26 and have many times thought back on what I could have done differently as a mother that might have kept him away from that place at that time that caused his motorcycle accident. Makes it difficult to identify exactly what to regret! I regret not pressing harder on my partner to not take his motorcycle trip down south that resulted in his demise too. I don't see that this distinction has as yet come up.

I don't want to write a long piece which would pretty much echo many of the wonderful comments above. It's been a revelation and an affirmation to read so many parallel experiences, thoughts and regrets. Thanks to all for feeding my spirit. I especially relate to the 70ish women's insights. Now, how about extolling what we are proud to have accomplished in our lives. I suspect that you'd have to put a word limit on comments, Ronni.

Looking back to high school, I remember being treated like dirt, ignored by a bunch of snobby popular girls.

The ones who lived in big houses, wore expensive clothes, had designer dogs.

One girl in particular, got together with her entourage and ordered them not to talk to me or my one pal, all year.

Why? We didn't know. I guess they thought we were losers.

Therefore, we were not invited to one single party, not asked to join skipping, nothing.

I was sad and I repeated that grade.

Fast forward.

A good education is a great equalizer. Some of those clique girls dropped out of college, university and even life.

Back in school, they could never do anything on their own, always walked in tandem with their pals, making fun of anyone they deemed low on the pole of life.

Now I realize how insecure those girls were. I didn't need bodyguards to make it in life, and you know what?

They did me a favor. Made me work harder. Made me stronger.

Only regret is, I should have walked up to the biggest snob in the schoolyard and punted her ass to Mars.

I like the comment by the grandmother who regretted not staying in touch with her nieces ... and then DID something about it. It's never too late!

@Nana Royer -- "Regret" seems to be used in two ways: (1) A person may regret his/her conduct or failure to act. (2) A person may also regret a loss without being in any way responsible for the loss which he/she mourns.

It's only natural that, for the rest of your life, you'll "regret" (in sense #2) the premature deaths of those you loved. You must not confuse this kind of natural "regret" with a guilty sense of responsibility, "regret" (in sense #1), for something you did or didn't do.

I don't believe that you could have prevented two adult males from making the decisions which resulted in their deaths. You should be free to forever mourn their deaths, but without guilt.

Another winner, Ronni....I am now serving on the committee for our 50th high school reunion to be held in May. Finding out that so many classmates have already passed on to the "golden arches" in the sky, I regret that I did not know more of them. There were 400+ "girls" in our graduation class and at this point only about 75 have responded. (maybe) But - I was a loner who wanted to be a housewife and marry Prince Sydney - and so be it. My regret is that I had no ambition or focus...and the only reason I received my Bachelors Degree in 1986 was because My wonderful Mother said I should continue at Hebrew College till I got pregnant and so I grad. in 1966 while pregnant with my son; to be God willing, 45 years old.(who I love very much but not always showed it) that is one big regret...the other was comparing my children to their peers - what an assenine thing to do...MAY THEY NEVER DO THAT WITH MY GRANDCHILDREN!!!

The professor that taught my Philosophy 101 class once said to the class "Whenever you start a sentence with If I had known then, what I know now..., you're creating a proposition contrary to fact and therefore it is an invalid proposition"

My regret is that I wasn't smarter when I was younger so I would know then what I know now. If I had been I would have asked my parents and grandparents a lot more questions and tried to get to know them better. For several weekends I've been consolidating decades of family photos I inherited and I realized just how little I knew about the people in the pictures.

As a general rule, I just did what I wanted to when I wanted to, seeing the world, having an interesting array of affairs and relationships. I'm glad of that now, at age almost 56, because it's a lot more dangerous to travel now, and I don't feel like doing as much anyway. Feeling good about my next birthday.

I noticed you were mentioning not having regrets because you fix what ever it is and move on. Yet, in the next paragraph you changed the word regret to I wish. That is a regret that you never did something you wished you had. My husband said he had no regrets yet he WISHED he stayed in the Army longer. I am now 75 and I regret and I wish I would have taken better care of my being when I was in my 20's and 30's.

I just watched that video of 1900-1906 and it amazing how easy going people were in crowds. You could not tell which lady was over weight or which one had a trim figure because they covered up so much. Everyone wore hats how marvelous and classy was that.

I know this is an old post, but I had to put it out here for me. My earlier years regrets would be not finding out more info about my parent's lives and not appreciating them as the truly wonderful people they were. But how many of us do that because we are young and selfish? Next I regret not going to college, but I was still in the era of girls are suppose to marry and have children.
I never had children and married late in life mostly happy. I only regret the not having children if we would have had a close relationship later in life like I had with my Mother. But I'm pretty Ok with not having them. Then I regret not understanding my husband's "mental demons" from his childhood that affected our marriage in the last few years before he passed. It caused a disconnect and hurt feelings for us both. Now I regret that I can't seem to find any sense of purpose or at best peace of mind for my final years. Wow I must be a mess!

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