Many people told me that it was important not to focus on regrets or to be too hard on one's self. John, who was almost 94 when I interviewed him, made some wise observations on the subject of regret. He had spent the first 35 years of his adult life working as a journalist with the communist party in Canada . As a very idealistic young man, having from his early teen years been deeply disturbed by the injustice he saw in the world, he decided to devote his life to working for "the Party," which he, like many others at that time, saw as a vehicle to social justice. Over the years, he saw many reasons to doubt the Party's goals and its methods, but he continued to work in it with the hope that it would change. He saw a glimmer of hope for that change when he had the opportunity to work as an editor for an international communist magazine in Prague . It was 1968, and a reform movement was budding in Czechoslovakia for "socialism with a human face." But that hope was brutally dashed when Russian tanks rolled into that country and crushed the new reform movement. They also crushed John's faith in the Party. For him it was, he says, "the last of many straws." When he returned to Canada soon after, he left the Party.
Yet, he did not allow himself to be crushed by regret, which was a common trait among the people we interviewed. I came to realize that it was not that these people had fewer disappointments or detours than the rest of us, they simply handled them differently. As John told me: "In the first half of my life, the meaning was hoping to achieve a better world, then there was the bitter disillusionment that followed. When that happens, understandably you have regrets and you sometimes wonder: Did I waste my life? I know that I'm richer for the experience, yet sometimes I also wonder what my life would have been like had I taken a different route. But you cannot live your life on an 'if.' I took the rest of my life as it came and had many happy moments. I knew from my childhood years that I had an inherent artistic talent, but my work did not allow me to express itself. While living in Prague for those two years, with more time on my hands, I attended a life-drawing class, and that started a hobby that has given new meaning to the final third of my life. When I came back to Canada , I used my editing skills from all those years with the Party to enter the field of editing in health-care, which I found most rewarding for 15 more years. I also attended classes in all the graphic arts, honed in on watercolors and, after I retired, painting became my third career. If not for these detours, which some might think of as regrets, so many good things might not have happened in my life."
Elsa, in her seventies, told me that the best advice she had ever received was from her daughter who said: "Mom, you just have to dust yourself off and get back up." A common trait among the people whom others had identified as having found happiness was their ability to "dust themselves off and get back up." It is not that they had had fewer disappointments than others did but that they refused to allow setbacks to defeat them. Perhaps what often determines our happiness in life is the step we take after a setback. There will always be setbacks, and these setbacks often require us to risk again. To love after we have been hurt or lost. To try even after we have failed or been rejected. Or, as was in the case with John, to simply realize that we have been on the wrong path. John dusted himself off and stepped back into life. Listening to the stories of over 200 people, I realized this was a common thread.
There is a kind of gentle grace that is required from us when it comes to regret. It is often said that we cannot forgive others if we cannot first forgive ourselves. Though one of the secrets is to leave no regrets, most of us will have a few. So we must choose to heal the regrets we do have, to bathe them in forgiveness, to know that in most cases we did the best we knew how to do at the time when we acted. It is a sign of our wisdom that we can embrace regret and let it go. Indeed, one difference I noted between the "wise elders" and the less happy people we interviewed was how they dealt with regret in their lives. The happiest people had come to peace with their lives, whereas unhappy people dwelled on regret and missed opportunities.
However, regret does serve one very important positive function in our lives. Our regrets can remind us of what really matters, and if we listen to our regrets, they can keep us from the deeper pool of regret that may lie ahead. Just as my regret about not working in the national parks helped me say yes to going to Africa , we can visit that older version of ourselves and know what we should do. Our lives can never be without regrets or mistakes, but if we regularly check in with that older version of ourselves we are less likely to leave undone that which we came here to do.
When I asked people I interviewed if they had risked enough, almost every one of them said no. Perhaps after we have lived a long life we begin to realize that there was much less to lose than we thought there was. What chances would you take if you knew you had only one year to live? Are you playing your life safe, hiding under the desk or standing by the window just watching the show? If you look at your life from the perspective of an old person sitting on a porch -- what will you wish you had done?
Copyright © 2008 John Izzo
About the AuthorJohn Izzo, Ph.D., is the bestselling author of Second Innocence and host of the public television series The Five Things You Must Discover Before You Die. Holding advanced degrees in religion and psychology, Izzo has spoken to over one million people on four continents about living more purposeful lives. More info rmation about Mr. Izzo can be found at www.theizzogroup.com.