Between the conscious and the unconscious, the mind has put up a swing:
all earth creatures, even the supernovas, sway between these two trees,
and it never winds down.
Angels, animals, humans, insects by the million, also the wheeling sun and moon;
ages go by, and it goes on.
Everything is swinging: heaven, earth, water, fire,
and the secret one slowly growing a body.
Kabir saw that for fifteen seconds, and it made him a servant for life.
Last month, Z, my cousin’s five-year-old daughter, came home and showed her mother her homework assignment: Z’s first-grade teacher had asked the class to write about their regrets. The topic seemed slightly, uh, adult. Z is five-years-old. She spends an inordinate amount of time dressing her dolls, not ruing the past (that we know of). In the end, Z had no regrets, thankfully, so she made something up. But it got me thinking.
In my twenties, I would have said I didn’t believe in regrets. Why waste one’s time dwelling on the past, or a misstep that probably put you exactly where you needed to be? It seemed nuts.
Back, then I had an inkling that this wasn’t a universally held opinion. When I sent out invites for a “Celebrate Our Failures” party, asking guests to come ready to present something they’d botched, the reactions were mixed, to say the least. In retrospect, most of my friends were older; most of them had, by this point, grappled with failure in a way I hadn’t, at least not yet. Through the grumbling, I heard, “What’s the use of spreading sunshine over thorny mistakes?”
Nonetheless, the party was a smashing success. I set up a Failure Wall, and people affixed things like divorce papers, credit reports, photos of now-defunct couples in happier times. I later wrote an essay about the gathering, and one of my teachers responded, “Oh! I would have put up a lock of my dog’s hair, in a nod to the time I let him out without a leash, and he got hit by a car.”
My favorite story came from J, my friend’s husband. In architecture school, he’d been a Type A-superstar; his advisor even suggested that they go into business together. For his first official pitch meeting, he went on his own to meet with a client, and the client was not impressed. Post-meeting, the client had written a scathing email to J, which included a snarky suggestion that the extent of J’s preparation had been writing half-baked notes on the back of an old, coffee-stained envelope. J was mortified.
At the party, he wasn’t planning on sharing. But after a few hours (and pints), he’d come up to me and asked if he could use my printer. Within moments, he was standing, reading the email to the whole group. We were enthralled, and entertained. Cast in an absurdist light, the email read as side-splittingly funny. The more we laughed, the more J’s chest lifted. After, I saw his wife cracking up in the corner. “What?” I asked. She pointed to J, who was now boasting about his failure to a handful of people in the corner. His wife said, “One bad email, and now he’s the most popular guy at the party. It’s hilarious.”
If only the alchemy of remorse—turning lead into gold—were always that easy.
* * *
I didn’t get it then. Though I’d had my share of things I wished had gone otherwise—failed messy relationships, professional paths that hadn’t panned out, things I’d said that I wished I hadn’t—yet I’d never truly sat with my own feelings, to consider the consequences. My tendency was to simply move on, and at lightening speed.
This is my earliest regret: after I’d snuck off in the bushes to make out with T—my first kiss—I called him, nauseous. The set-up of this event was days in the making and involved me lying to my parents about my whereabouts. That didn’t sit well. I said, “Listen, I have a sick feeling in my stomach, and, um, I’m pretty sure it’s you.” On the other end of the phone, there was silence.
The next day, I felt terrible for having zero tact and hurting his feelings in the process. It took month or so, but by some miracle, we became friends. He forgave me, but he has, to this day, never let me forget. When we were in our twenties, we were paired up in the wedding party of two friends. Right before we linked arms and walked down the aisle of the church, he whispered, “So I have this sick feeling in my stomach, and I think it’s you.” More recently, while telling him about my grandmother’s blunt ways, I said offhandedly, “God, I can’t wait until I have no filter”—to which he replied, “I’m not sure how much filter you have left.” Oh, right, I remembered.
That regret doesn’t seem so awful in hindsight. But in the aftermath, the pit in my stomach only got heavier, more intense. It’s no wonder I had made a habit of ignoring my own regrets—and those of others, too. Many years ago, someone I love dearly was ruing his ignorance about something important. He expected better of himself. Witnessing this, I practically jumped out of my own skin. I interrupted, “No! Don’t feel bad. It’s not necessary.” At the time, I thought I was coming from a place of love, but I soon realized that actually, when you love someone, you make space for that person in his/her entirety, no boxes required. Remorse, regret—when handled with self-compassion and care, it is sometimes it is entirely appropriate.
* * *
Until the last few years, when asked about regret, I have had a stock answer: I regret very few things in life, but I still kick myself for bailing on seeing Nina Simone play when I had the chance. Instead, I hosted a going away dinner for a friend and spent the day preparing a roast pork dinner with chutney made from scratch. I still cringe.
But “everything happens for a reason!” one might say. While I believe that ultimately it does, when mired in real remorse, platitudes can feel downright insulting. Sometimes, they miss the point of having the feeling in the first place.
Over the past several months, I’ve found myself saying, on more than one occasion, “Oh, look—another lesson I will take to my grave!” While this type of clarity (who doesn’t love clarity?) can be enlivening, I didn’t realize that by clinging to the resulting lesson, I was still skipping a step. I wasn’t looking inside. I thought I was. But, upon reflection, I wasn’t.
Early in the year, I had a dream about someone with whom I once had an epic conflict. In waking life, in the midst of the struggle, I had felt badly, even as I was defending myself. I had plenty of friends who said, “But what about his actions?” We pushed each other’s buttons, no doubt. Yet, his behavior was not my business. I could only control my own actions, and given my missteps, there was good cause to reflect.
After a year, whatever guilt I had about this situation stopped crossing my mind; it was almost as if I had total amnesia. Then, this year, six years after the fact, I had a dream about him, in which we became friends, the kind who catch up over lunch. The feeling of the dream was so overwhelmingly peaceful that I almost called him to bury the hatchet. But after thinking about it, I didn’t call. On a soul-level, the healing had happened. There was nothing left to forgive.
I was humbled to realize that it took me that long to come to grips with my regrets. Sure, I understood on a rational level, but it wasn’t until that dream that I could access the very same understanding, only now it was without judgment, of myself or of him. This is peace.
* * *
More recently, I found myself turning to bigger, more consequential regrets; there was no trigger for this sobriety—it just arrived one morning, along with the sunrise. The feeling was horrifying, and suddenly I wondered if other people felt this way all the time. I hoped not. I reached out to a few friends and told one, “I’m flattened like a pancake.” I told another, “I feel like I’ve been dragged into a tidal wave.” And finally, to another, “Maybe I’m dying.”
It sounds funny in retrospect (and actually, we were laughing by the end of that last conversation), but this spell, lasted a few excruciating days; there was no simple answer, no distraction, no avoidance, no unstoppable forward momentum. As I often do, I woke up in the middle of the night with song lyrics in my head: “How am I going to be an optimist about this?” My psyche has never been subtle.
I was so irritated. My “buck up!” mentality was hollow, not helpful. My choices exhausted, I did a deep dive, after I remembered two things.
First, a friend had once told me that, after her father died, she realized that she had stayed angry with him, because she didn’t want to lose him. Arguments were their glue. She worried that if she let go of resentment, there would be nothing there. After he died, she saw, with more than a hint of melancholy, that there had been so much more between them. Regret can perform a similar function, I think; dwelling excessively on what we might have done differently keeps us tethered to old, self-sabotaging patterns, unable to build anew. It keeps us from facing the unknown.
The second thing I remembered was this: when intensity like this pops up, it’s meant to be healed. This sounds basic, and it is. Yet, I had forgotten. That satisfied the silver-lining seeker in me, enough that I could let down my guard and say, “Fine. What is this really about?”
The truth? Well, after all that crazy-making static, I decided to revel in the remorse. (I don’t have a how-to guide, here—you have to follow your own gut.) Once I’d stopped judging, sinking deeper into the feeling was not indulgent or pessimistic; it was necessary, calming and beautiful, too—the very best kind of reality check. In moments, I felt an odd bliss pouring out of me—not a light, happy-go-lucky, I-tell-great-jokes-at-cocktail-parties feeling, but the purity of gut-wrenching truth. Only from this honest place can we take the murkier material of our lives and make something utterly authentic and wonderful, turning that lead into gold. Only from there can we see that, yes, actually, everything does happen for a reason.
After, the songs rolling through my head became markedly more upbeat (like, say, this one). There were lovely, exciting external developments that followed, but none compared to the internal reward from just dealing: the mustard seed of belief in myself.
* * *
Just as I had a return to optimism, the question of regret came up again. My grandmother’s heart was failing. K and I wanted to rush up to see her in the hospital, but the consensus was to wait. With many members of our extended clan making the trip, it may have been too much for her. But I hated thinking that I might not be able to hold her hand, and K said, “Let’s just get on the road. We’ll tell everyone after we’re on the highway, when it’s too late to have us turn back.”
No one told us to turn back. By the time we got to the hospital, there was a mini-family reunion in the waiting area, hugs and humor all around. One of my cousins handed me a piece of paper. “I think you dropped this,” he said. I opened it: an ultrasound. Confused, and in the middle of a conversation with my uncle, I said, “Nope. Not mine.” When everyone was silent, it finally registered: he and his wife are expecting their first child. I shrieked. Probably every person in that hospital heard me.
Meanwhile, my grandmother, commenting on the flood of family at her side, said, “So I guess everyone thinks I’m going to kick the bucket.” But, true to form, she was still cracking jokes. At the hospital, she explained to us how she was taught to calm her breath: “You smell the roses. That’s the right way to do it,” she said, inhaling.
At first, I didn't understand what she meant.
She repeated: “If you can smell the roses, then you’re doing it right.”