Aging and Regret
Thursday, 12 July 2012
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
For now, I'm going to pause & reflect on what you've written......so very well.....because you are a superb writer, virus & all:) Feel better soon. Dee
Posted by: Dee | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 05:53 AM
This post reminded me of Charles Aznavour singing "Je ne regrette rien."I don't have any BIG regrets myself. I would think that those regrets need to be life choices. My dad experienced first love at 17, in Denmark, after the Russian Revolution. HIs Russian sweetheart married a Danish butter baron. My father let it happen because he had nothing to offer her, no future, etc. She came to see me in the USA at my birth 30 years later, trying to win my dad back but he remained true to my mom and me. Those were major regrets she was experiencing, I would say.
Posted by: Alexandra | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 05:57 AM
There's no regret like an abortion -- a whole person missing.
Now before you jump on me, I'm not saying everyone does or should regret an abortion! It's an entirely individual matter, including individual circumstances. The circumstances I was in were very difficult, at once strongly for and strongly against having that child; under pressure and in ignorance, I made what was for me the wrong and the most irrevocable of choices. I don't torture myself about it, but I will always regret it, and that seems entirely appropriate.
Posted by: amba (Annie Gottlieb) | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 05:58 AM
Coincidentally, I just wrote on this topic for my Rain Trueax writing blog; and in looking at it for characters touched on it with considering two words as opposite ways of looking at life-- what if and if what. Basically it's the difference between looking forward or backward.
I see though value in once in awhile considering 'if what happened hadn't' but dwelling on it gets me nowhere. Grieving is an important aspect of life where we don't deny sadness its place-- for awhile-- then we figure out what we can do starting from where we are.
Naturally I don't live that way all the time anymore than anybody else but it's the place I want to be which means no regrets unless they lead to some new decisions to fix things as best I can from where I am. I've certainly made mistakes but as you said, it was what I felt was right at the moment-- even if later I thought-- what the heck was I thinking!
Posted by: Rain | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 06:14 AM
Dwelling on regret is a waste of time. It changes nothing. If you want to get rid of it, ask forgiveness for your sins/bad deeds and then move on.
Very good post!
Posted by: kenju | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 07:02 AM
Loads and loads and loads more sex.
Posted by: wisewebwoman | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 07:08 AM
I love the words "butter baron." And Edith Piaf also sang "Je...Rein." Mostly I regret or feel sad about the fact that I am human, that I am not perfect (Ha!) that what I think i should have done or said in a particular circumstance is not what I did. However many things can be amended, corrected, changed. It just depends.
It may be awful of me but I like reading again about how you long for NYC and how financial practicality led you to leave. I am in a similar situation, I cannot seem to return to the area I love and lived in for 30 years due to finances. Life is cheaper here where I am. I am not sure i have totally given up though and am still hoping to find a window back. It is so isolated here.
And I am both a practical person and not a practical person. Depending on which Libra scale is loaded today.
Posted by: suki | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 08:17 AM
Re: practical. I wrote that as you seem very practical and "resigned" to your exiled fate.
That seems practical. VS being a dreamer and wishing one could find a way to return which seems perhaps impractical.
Posted by: suki | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 08:20 AM
Seems to me that regret is an inevitable result of living. I regret many of my actions. I don't dwell on them & I don't beat myself up for them but I certainly remember & regret. They're my life lessons & it's good to think about them from time to time. They're a way of reminding myself of what's valuable.
Posted by: Bert | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 08:36 AM
When I think about things I regret it is usually one thing at a time and then I wish it could have been different. But when I think about all of the things I have ever regretted I realize it couldn't all have been different, and I would only have ended up with a different set of regrets. So I guess regret is like guilt, you live with it as best you can because it's unavoidable.
Unless of course you are one of the small minority who has achieved the ability not to feel either useless emotion at all.
Posted by: Annie | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 08:36 AM
I regret not getting angry more often - when the situation called for it! True to the feminine credo of our generation, other people's comfort always came before my own. I'm great at sticking up for other people, but not myself.
I'm taking 'Get in your Face' lessons from a feisty little neighbor woman, so there's still hope for me!
Posted by: Lauren Nelson | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 08:42 AM
Lauren speaks for me, too.
I should have fought back.
Ronni, take care, it's a devil of a virus.
Posted by: Marcy B. | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 08:56 AM
After a person dies most of us regret not having told them how much we loved and admired them.
Sometimes the regret is the opposite. I regret being a wimp and not telling my father what a selfish man he was and when I am in a bad mood I tell him now and wish he could hear me. It's called unfinished business.
Posted by: Darlene | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 09:04 AM
“Mostly, they involve having hurt others – way too frequently and the pain can be devastating.”
Amen to that, and especially in hindsight, if one realizes the hurt caused was due to neglect or inattentiveness to the other’s needs.
And that if one had been heeding signs of impending trouble, the circumstances surely would have resolved themselves differently. Maybe not better but at least in a manner that allows one to feel less devastated about said resolution.
Posted by: Elsa Louise | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 12:16 PM
If ever I look back, I've always made the 'right' decision: Take the road less traveled, take all the time in the world to: smell the roses, see the new world unfold through the eyes of children - and damn those who are directionless.
It's a wonderful world we live in. Drink in the sunshine as if it were a fine wine. Enjoy every glassfull.
Posted by: Yellowstone | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 12:16 PM
I wish I knew other languages. I think English is deficient when it comes to expressions of sorrow, regret, remorse. "I'm sorry" can mean "I apologize" or "I'm sorry that you are suffering." I lead with this because I get stuck trying to state feelings about not having had children. I regret it in the sense that I wish it had been possible--my husband and I both believe we have missed a lot. But we tried, it didn't work, and we have a wonderful full life. So I don't regret it in the sense that I made a wrong decision. I wonder if other languages/cultures have a richer vocabulary.
Posted by: jane d | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 12:37 PM
Yes, regrets but did was seemed right at the moment.
A marriage that should have never been but then I would not have the wonderful children and granchildren that I have been gifted with :)
Elsa Louise - I cannot imagine you hurting anyone...
Posted by: ernestine lawson | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 12:45 PM
I try to "lean toward the good". I don't always succeed, but I try.
Posted by: joann wallace | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 12:55 PM
I always try to remember that hindsight is 20/20. It seems we forget this so easily. Also, "if wishes were horses, beggars would ride", one of my mom's sayings. And lastly, courtesy of The Rolling Stones, "you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might just find you get what you need".
Posted by: Christine | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 02:34 PM
I always tell myself that in my next life that things will be different; that I will be different. Because it's too late now and regret only makes me cry, and then my husband tries to comfort me, but there's nothing to be done now.
Posted by: Classof65 | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 04:02 PM
The things I regret are mostly the result of me being too lazy or uninterested to get up & do them. But I guess I didn't want to do things bad enough or I would have. I also regret hurting some people but it always seemed right for me at the time. Okay...maybe no regrets worth mentioning.
Posted by: Stefani | Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 06:03 PM
Regret is a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that has happened or been done.
I regret many things that I have done along the way. Hiding or denial of these feelings has not been helpful to me. Better that I fully own them and let memories serve to remind me to choose my actions more carefully. We can learn from regrettable actions and perhaps avoid repeating them. Of course, owning them does not mean that we have to feed on the memories or bash ourselves with them. As my wonderful partner Marian has taught me, there are no mistakes, just outcomes. In each available moment, I am the sum total of all my experience. I may not have control of the events that come my way, but I am free to choose how I react to them.
Posted by: Sky Mccain | Friday, 13 July 2012 at 01:16 AM
For a change of pace, here is something I don't regret. Discovering TGB and elder bloggers. You all cheer me up!
Posted by: Julie | Friday, 13 July 2012 at 07:32 AM
David Brooks at the NYTimes asked readers over 70 to send him "life stories". He published many of them on his blog--they tell tales of regret, happiness, and every emotion between. A fascinating collection. Highly recommended.
Posted by: Philip | Friday, 13 July 2012 at 08:32 AM
Thank you for this post and for all who have commented. I don't have coherent thoughts of my own about regrets to post right now but am grateful to have thoughts and memories percolating. I believe some clarity will result. Feel better, Ronni.
Posted by: Loha Marne | Tuesday, 17 July 2012 at 02:53 PM