I have one thing in common with Frank Sinatra: I will admit to having regrets in my life. This is, in its way, a unique bond. My unofficial polling demonstrates that most people do not admit to any regrets.
In fact, the “I have no regrets” proclamation has almost become cliche. Every time a celebrity reflects on another divorce, or an athlete puts a losing effort into perspective, or a president dedicates his library, they insist upon contentment with every decision that brought them to Oprah’s couch, the locker room without the champagne, or the makeshift dais. The pattern insinuates that to regret is to err, and that to err is to be a lesser human.
Because we want to believe US Weekly when it promises that stars are just like us, we seem to have adopted this bravado regarding our own personal histories. I cannot recall the last time I heard someone admit they regretted doing something. I cannot begin to ballpark the number of times I’ve heard someone avow they regret nothing.
Chalk this up as another instance where I’ll self-identify as a mere mortal. I have regrets. Actually, I have a lot of them.
There are trivial regrets. I regret almost every outfit I’ve ever selected by myself. I regret ordering catfish at a restaurant in 2002. I regret spraying myself with Liz Claiborne perfume in eighth grade without stopping to ask the question, “how much is too much?”
Then there are much more meaningful regrets. I regret pulling a metal folding chair out from behind a classmate during music class. He fell down, hard, on his backside, and everyone in the class laughed at him. I got in trouble with the music teacher, but that’s not what I regret. I regret that I was the person who made my innocent, undeserving classmate look silly and be ridiculed, however briefly.
I regret every other time I’ve been less than charitable, polite or respectful. I regret how much time I’ve wasted being mean to myself. I regret all the times I’ve lost my patience with my children. I regret my selfish impulses.
Many of those moments are a blur by now. But I know they happened, and I wish I could return to every one of them and smile faster, or listen harder, or breathe deeper.
I am not, however, ashamed of my regrets. In an odd way, I am proud of them. Rather, I am proud that I am not ashamed of them. It’s my signal that I’ve grown up enough to accept, with relief and without reservation, that I am a work in progress.
To my mind, then, regret is a wonderful thing. For goodness’ sake, to regret means to feel sad, repentant, or disappointed about something. While no one looks forward to those moments, on the other side is a learning opportunity, a chance to play a hand in your own evolution. It’s the type of math I can actually compute: I did this, and got that result. Next time, I’ll go with a different input, in the hopes and expectation of a more satisfying output.
Unfortunately, I am a slow learner. I still don’t know how to dress myself well. I don’t speak kindly to myself. I yell, get jealous and judge.
It does not matter. Living a life with regret allows me to live a life with a tool for chipping away at my rough edges. It allows me to be more empathetic and vulnerable. I ask more questions, and do more walking in other people’s shoes.
And it’s a funny thing. Being open about my mistakes, asking for help when I’m clueless, and laughing when I wear another old shirt with a large stain down the front has brought more people into my life. The older I get, the dumber I feel, and that seems to be an inviting state of mind.
I will never be perfect. I might not ever be solidly good. I think that’s OK.
I’m trying to improve, and I’m willing to learn. Embracing regret is helping me do both.