Regret’s a funny thing, isn’t it? I used to believe that it served no redeemable purpose, that accumulated regret would only function to burden a person under its weight, like a sack of rocks, discomfort giving way to hopelessness and overall stuck-ness as one buckled under the heaviness of it over the years.
I remember one of my first memories as a child being steeped in regret. With my family, I had emigrated from France at the tender age of 4 ½, speaking not a single word of English. Days after having arrived in Canada, we decided to visit a museum somewhere on the East Coast. With my parents, I entered an enormous hall that housed an expansive and interactive children’s winter exhibition. I was overcome by the beauty of a massive igloo standing before me. Staring into the extended entryway of the beautiful, white, frosted structure, I suddenly became aware of the children playing inside. From the half-moon entrance, I gazed past the hallway, into the blue-white dome at the children’s exuberant and smiling faces decorated with sparkle face-paint. I remember my parents urging me to go in, but I just stood there, paralyzed.
Ironically, something about it delighted and intrigued me. I yearned for my cheeks to be adorned with frosty, magical paint, too, but my feet stood planted firmly on the concrete floor of the exhibition refusing the invitations of my perplexed parents.
Looking back, the long list of rapid-fire firsts undoubtedly had me swimming in a sea of very understandable overwhelm. My little 4-year-old heart desperately wanted to enter but my mind wouldn’t let me. I was standing at the edge of what felt like a life-changing cliff and felt unable to close my eyes, embrace the unknown, and take the leap.
I remember driving away from the exhibition, quietly heartbroken and disappointed that I had passed on the opportunity. Unable to forgive myself, whenever the uncomfortable experience came to mind, I would often push the memory away entirely.
But…perspective is relative…even to a child.
For a long time, I unconsciously adopted the ubiquitous North American bumper-sticker-slogan, “no regrets,” unequivocally rejecting the potential value of regret and denying its existence entirely. Regret is uncomfortable…why on Earth would one subject oneself to it?
Yet… I’ve recently changed my mind about regret.
Perhaps it does indeed have a purpose. That purpose, however, relies entirely on the ability of a person to harness its usefulness, while resisting the damaging effects of reliving a past one cannot change.
I have come to believe that regret operates as a guide…
reminding you to stand in your integrity,
to seek out the pursuits most connected to your ‘heart-wishes’ (the things that your ‘thinking-mind’ often prevents you from pursuing for a myriad of ‘rational’ reasons),
to have intention without hesitation and follow that intention with unapologetic purpose.
In order for regret to be useful, one has to also employ self-forgiveness.
Like many people, I’ve had a challenging relationship with the general concept of forgiveness.
It’s taken me a long time to settle upon a definition that would enable me to engage in authentic forgiveness while maintaining my integrity. Here it is…
Forgiveness is the ability to accept the past and to stop wishing it were different, despite injustice, hurt, and heartbreak. It’s not about condoning. It’s about finding a way forward. Not for someone else. For yourself.
I believe that regret and forgiveness are closely tied. Regret is that inner reminder that tells you that you deviated from your values. Forgiveness allows you to move forward, becoming unstuck through your pursuit to apply your lessons learned. You can release yourself from replaying regret, accept it, apply the lesson, and live your life with the intention you have for it, in forward motion.
Nowadays, I call that inner-conflict I felt as a four-year-old in the museum winter exhibition, the “jump off the cliff” moments. Life presents you with these moments every so often, I believe, to test your character, courage, ability to step outside of your comforts. These are the moments where your heart knows what to do but the fear of uncertainty or apparent failure hold you back through hesitation, under the guise of protecting you.
I’ve had many of these moments.
We all have.
Recently, I felt the familiar sting of regret, once again. It had been a while. It still sucked.
As a young girl, my grandmother Mac played a significant role in my life. Even into her eighties, I remember Mac as a smart-looking woman, immaculate glossy white permed curls, supple rosy cheeks, expertly-applied fuschia lipstick, a closet full of high-heeled YSL shoes, and charisma beaming from captivating electric eyes.
She was a petite little thing, so much so that she always drove her 1960’s Valiant perched upon a couple of opulent throw pillows, and even still, could just barely see over the steering wheel. Small as she was, one learned never to underestimate her. She was one of the most determined, brave, and stubborn women I knew. The eldest of 11 children, she had led a rebellious and adventurous life, and had learned many lessons from the school of hard knocks. Challenge and hardship were no match for her.
Over the years, I developed relationships with some of her siblings, my great aunts and uncles. Although we didn’t see him often, I remember visiting Roy, my great-uncle (through marriage). He was always good to us kids, bringing us gifts at Christmas. I remember one year he brought us special chocolates, a book of Christmas-edition life-savers I savoured for weeks, and a mini-bottle of Chanel N.5 I cherished throughout my middle-school years. As I grew up, attended high-school and university, I saw less and less of him, but thought of him affectionately as I looked back on those memories.
Fast forward to last year. A few months before Christmas, I learned that Roy was living in a nearby seniors housing centre and this would be the year of his 100th birthday. I tracked down his address and sent him a Christmas card, wishing him the best and expressing an interest in reuniting. A few months later, I received a response!
I told myself once my babies were a little older and it was a little easier, I would visit him.
A full year passed. It was Christmas again and I remembered my promise.
I searched out the number for the senior’s centre, called and left a message for Roy, introducing myself excitedly as his great-niece.
Two days later, I received a call from his son. Graciously, he immediately informed me of his father’s passing just a few months earlier. Expressing my sympathy and thanking him for the call, I hung up, regret weighing down upon my shoulders, once again.
In the hopes of escaping the discomfort, I quickly told myself not to worry…to forget about it.
But, the truth is, I was crushed.
I found myself reflecting upon the permanence of life and the value of every moment. I thought about the value and grace of my existing relationships. We have to cherish the relationships we have in the here and now.
Although, I can’t transport myself into the past, can’t change what has come to be, I can take this as a valuable lesson to quiet my hesitations, listen to my heart and trust my intuition to do what’s important.
“Regret is one of the most powerful emotional reminders that change and growth are necessary,” Brené Brown, author of Rising Strong, asserts. “It’s a call to courage and a path toward wisdom…regret can be used constructively or destructively. ‘No regrets’ doesn’t mean living with courage, it means living without reflection. Regret is what [teaches] me that living outside of my values is not tenable.”