I think that at a certain age, and that age can vary, we begin to take stock. Sometimes it comes with a monumental birthday or a big event (marriage, graduation, the birth of a child, a global pandemic) or just in the middle of the weekend. Maybe we are looking to see how we can improve, or how to move closer to our truth, or just examine next steps and and stages of life. Reflection can be lovely. It can help us to see where to go, how to adjust, and what to keep on doing. Looking backward, though, can get in the way of moving forward. If you are looking backward more than looking forward, it is possible you’re going to stumble, or not move at all.
I tend to be the reflective type. I can reflect on the big events, but also the mundane ones like walking the dog in the middle of a Wednesday morning. I also tend to be a dreamer, like huge, crazy, vivid idea dreams that rarely come to fruition, a completely different reality. It makes for an exciting inner life, but a relatively humdrum outer life. The first time I read the story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in my first year of high school, it was a little too close for comfort. Except for the fact that the guy was grown and married and living in the 1930s, I felt exactly the same way. I have never gotten around to seeing the movie version, because I love the short story and I am pretty sure my dream version is much better. Wink.
I realize that a lot of my life has been reflective and dream-like, but not necessarily adventure-filled or big. I like cozy, I like curling up with good books, making dinner, journalling, talking with a friend on the phone. My mom never punished me with “go to your room,” because that was heaven. At the same time, I have been very jealous of friends, family members, and other people for their big, sexy lives. And remember, big is relative. Big is something that means risk, commitment, and taking it from dream-state to matter. Big is stuff like getting married, traveling around the world, taking a chance on a dream job. Big can also be things like buying a ramshackle house, learning Italian, wearing orange lipstick, starting up an Etsy shop to sell your 70s-inspired macrame plant holders, or saying hello to the stranger on the bus. Yes, big is relative.
Now, I am smack dab in the middle of life. For a while now, I have been trying to move from less dreaming to more doing, but I realized that I have been my own biggest obstacle, because what stood between the piles of dreams and reflections to the DOING was a HUGE pile of regrets. Yeah, some of the those regrets were how I treated people at certain points, big mistakes, financial decisions or the lack of a decision at all, and feeling stuck, to name a few. The thing is, we all have moments of things we wish we could take back, but we can’t take them back. Sometimes we can recover from the situation, we can forgive ourselves (forgiving also means learning and not simply wallowing in excuses), but still it can mean living with the consequences and the result of that decision, statement, mistake.
Recently, though, I have started moving away from REGRET. One of the first things I did was make a list, a big scary list of things I regret. The list was long and some of the items were small things and some were big things. Again, what is considered big and small is relative. Making the list was hard. There were some things that sucked my breath away for a moment, and some that made my heart thump deep in my chest. I will admit to putting down the list more than once and it took me a few days to finish it. Then I went back and read through the list. It was a little hard to take, but it felt nice to have scraped all the monsters and mistakes out from under the rug, shooed them out from the dark corners of the closet. All of a sudden those hulking monsters were not so big in the bright light of realization and acknowledgment.
Some of those regrets made me laugh out loud and sigh in relief. One, it felt good to remember those things and maybe to see the lesson I learned, or the peace I have gained since then. Some still felt as uncomfortable and as fresh as if they had happened moments before even if they were years ago, and yeah, there were a couple of new regrets on the list that were fairly recent. Now, I could have stopped with that list and maybe gone to bed in a depressed state, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to see what has been holding me back. What I realized was that in making the list, some of the things, once I wrote them down, no longer bothered me. That was a realization of sweet release. Then, I went back to the list. Not to wallow in guilt and rage and remorse, but to make another list. For each item on the list, I listed something from that point that helped me to grow, make a turn in my life, or just in hindsight realize I was even glad to have not done certain things.
The new list was longer than the first, because for each so-called regret I had learned something, made a different path, and found a different perspective. Some of those were hard-won lessons and others are still settling into my marrow, but it really helped me to make that second list. For one, I am not the same person who did or didn’t do some of the things on the regret list. I kept the second list of the lessons, wisdom, and perspectives I have gained. Then, I ripped out the pages of the regret list from the notebook and I burned them. I used a lighter and held onto the list and watched the words flicker into nothingness, while standing over the kitchen sink, careful not to burn myself or anything else. I didn’t want to start a fire inside or outside, so as the flames puttered out, I dropped the ashes into the sink. I placed a wet paper towel over the drain to catch the ashes so they didn’t go down the drain and so the ash didn’t stain the sink. I said of prayer of thank yous and let out huge deep breaths.
You may laugh at my melodrama of burning the list, but I needed to symbolically let that list go and to forgive myself for things done and undone, for things said and unsaid, for paths taken and not taken.
I am not going to go into the list of my regrets, because they are no longer regrets. I refuse to carry around that baggage any longer. I dropped the weight and I feel lighter, by at least a couple of tons. I am sure that I will still think about those events and maybe even replay some things, but I can tell you that I feel different. I don’t think that forgiveness and erasing regrets happens over night. That’s partly why I had the symbolic gesture of burning and releasing. I needed to mark that moment. There are wars in the world, and we need fewer people fighting themselves in their own inner wars. Inner peace comes, but it takes a ceasefire and a treaty with yourself.
What have I learned from making the new list of the lessons, perspectives, wisdom? What have I learned from my regrets? I am empathetic and more forgiving of people who have made mistakes, and oh, yeah, we have all made mistakes and bad decisions. This is a quality that I had long before making the lists, but it is one that I really love about myself. It turns out that I am much harder on myself than others, and that a lot of us are. I can give myself a fresh start, but people around me are still living with the words, events, and harm that I have caused. They may or may not forgive me or move on from those events.
With the regrets that have involved others, I have to decide whether or not to approach those friends, family members, and former loved ones. I think that is going to take some time to decide, what and if and how to proceed. In many of those instances, I have already apologized, but the person may or may not want to revisit me, the memory, the misdeed. In some cases, the deed and damage has been done in the case of severed ties or a relationship that no longer works. In some cases, it has been talking with someone no longer alive or writing a letter that will never be delivered to someone that has helped me to grow and continue.
The biggest lesson that I have learned, is that I am my own biggest obstacle, and now cheerleader. I had to make peace with my past and with myself and it’s a peace still coming. I think I am also learning to keep my cards closer to my chest. I don’t necessarily have to broadcast my dreams and goals. I can move toward them quietly, deliberately, learning and growing along the way.
Making peace, reflecting, breathing deeply, making lists, letting go, coming up with new dreams, revisiting old dreams, they are all part of the journey of life, of being human. We can drown in regret or forgive and make new steps forward. As long as we have that ability to breathe, we have the choice to let go and find anew. We are always beginning and starting again.
A brutally honest essay. Takes a significant amount of courage to take a hard look in the mirror and come to terms with one’s past mistakes.. But the big payoff is that despite the pain one is now able to have peace with his- or herself. I have had to take a very formal look in the mirror on several occasions and the pain was awesome. But the relief was the attainment of much internal contentment.. Easier said than done!
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Thank you, William. Writing this was brutal and deciding to share was even more so. I wasn’t sure I could or should, but decided I needed to. You’re so right that the peace at the end of the pain is hard-won and that lovely relief does lead to that contentment. I have some more work to do, but I think I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, at least from this perspective, needing to look back at all the pain I’ve caused so far. I’m hoping that the future rounds will be less painful, and less to reckon, because surely I will have learned from these earlier rounds. 🙂 Thanks for your empathy and sharing. Peace to you!