As a thirty-something year old male (seriously, I’ve forgotten how old now), I have plenty of memories to reflect on. So many, in fact, that I’ve long lost many of them.
Yet, sometimes, in the middle of something completely unrelated, a random memory will pop up. And, more often than not, that memory is something where I find myself feeling a bit of regret about something.
I sometimes fear that most of my memories are about something in the past I wish had gone differently, generally with regards to my own actions. Like those mean things I may have said about someone in grade school, which, although may have been purely the attempts of an outcast youngster trying to fit in, were terribly mean. Or those times where I didn’t show up for something I know meant a lot to someone. Or when I may have completely forgotten about a scheduled date with someone. Or simply, just thoughts I had which I know weren’t ones I should have had.
Of course, the thing about regrets is that you can’t really change the past. And I don’t generally hold on to these items as a consideration of how terrible of a person I am, but as things to remember to ensure I try to be a better person tomorrow.
Yet, I can’t help but wish I could have done things differently, especially with regards to the things I have done (whether intentionally or not) which resulted in someone being hurt.
I’ve considered the “My Name is Earl” approach, where I make a giant list and go around to those people I may have wronged in some way and try to make things better. You may know it better as Step 5 of the Twelve Step program, where you admit to people the exact nature of your wrongdoings.
But I also know that in many of these cases, my “wrongdoings” probably didn’t even crop up on their radar. Also, well, I just don’t know how much good something like that does except to dig up old dirt. It might feel good for me, but I question how much good it does for the person being ‘apologized’ to.
A simple statement like, “I’m sorry for calling you fat when I was 8” might bring up old feelings of resentment a person has managed to shove down inside themselves. Maybe it would be healthy for them to deal with their demons, but it’s really not my place to force them to face them. Not to mention the likelihood of creating new regrets for myself…which, if I continue down the path, would mean I’d, at some point, possibly have to apologize for apologizing about calling someone fat nearly 30 years ago.
Is it really okay to relieve your own feelings of blame if it may cause someone else new pain?
Then again, the few times I’ve actually managed to face my regrets have been quite fulfilling, for both parties, I believe. About a year ago I had a discussion with an old roommate about how I could have helped him through his struggle with his personal identity a bit better. Of course, I was going through my own similar struggle, but that doesn’t mean he saw it that way. Throughout the conversation with him, I learned that he had seen my responses in the exact way he had feared, while, at the time, I had thought I was telling him precisely what he had wanted to hear.
In the end, I’m fairly certain he saw the previous conversations through a new light and our friendship became stronger for it. Of course, I can’t say that for certain, but the result certainly felt positive.
But in the end, aren’t most of your regrets a result of viewing your life through the knowledge of hindsight? Ignoring how you were younger and less informed at the time of occurrence? Ignoring whatever crap you may have been dealing with at the time? Looking strictly at the item in question, without all the surrounding details?
When I think about the person I called fat in 3rd grade, I don’t generally allow myself the forgiveness that I was struggling with being an outsider in a small school and saw this personal attack as an opportunity to gain favor with the in-crowd. I see it as an unnecessary personal attack. One which may have caused the person being attacked pain. In that light, it’s unforgivable. It’s not really all that forgivable with all the extra facts (except that 8 year-olds are not always aware of the results of their actions), but it’s certainly unforgivable when viewed simply as, I called that person fat.
But then, as I review my many regrets, I can’t help but see how they have made me into the man I am today. As well as the man I intend to make myself into for the future. Those regrets help inform my future decisions, they help me mold myself, help me become better, help me try to keep from making the same mistakes in the future.
We all have regrets. And I’m confident to state that I’m not the only one who has them crop up randomly and cause them to ask these same questions.
There’s nothing you can do to change the things you’ve done. But there are things you can do to make them better.
Earl (from My Name is Earl) worked through his list on the concept of karma. That if he did enough good things, good things would come back to him. He would meet up with the people he had wronged and try to find a way to make that wrong right.
How do you right the wrong of causing someone emotional pain? Or physical pain for that matter. Sure, if you stole something from someone and give it back to them years later, that may, technically, mean you have righted the wrong, but does that actually repair whatever mental damage may have been caused by that theft?
The wrong has been done. And your efforts to make the wrong right will not be able to account for the time between the wrong and your efforts. Your efforts will always be less than the wrongdoing.
Which means if you allow these regrets to hang over you like a heavy cloud, you’ve got very little chance of ever relieving yourself of what you’ve done.
And maybe, in some ways, you don’t deserve to be relieved.
But you can use those regrets in another way. You can use them to inform your actions in the future. Recognize that using derogatory remarks in the attempt to fit in just isn’t worth it. Strike your own path and be above that. If you missed a date with someone, use that to change your process so you will, I don’t know, use a calendar in the future.
Regrets are terrible. And they can weigh you down. But you can also use them to prop yourself up. To make you better. To drive you.
They may not go away. And they probably shouldn’t. But they should change you.
My regrets, honestly, are often things I’m sure are so minuscule that I’m certain they didn’t even register on the radar of the person I feel I’ve offended. If I were to contact the offended person and tell them about how I’m sorry I didn’t help them more with their project, they would probably just respond with something along the lines of “No worries, wasn’t expecting you to anyways”. Hardly a conversation which relieves regret.
But I can use them to try to be better.
And I do.
But I still fail…a lot. I guess by the time I’m eighty-something I may have gotten to the point where I’m finally creating fewer new regrets than I’m attempting to rectify.
That would be awesome. 🙂