I regret being in California when my grandmother died in North Carolina. I regret that the last time I saw her, we both knew it was the last time. I saw in her face the pain this caused her, and the image still haunts me. But most of all, I regret not finishing the book I started to read to her — a soothing, enchanted book from her childhood — before I left her in that ugly nursing home.
The attempt my family made at enlivening her room — a poster of a horse, a stuffed dog, a silly, colorful feather-duster — were appreciated tokens of love, and much-needed humor. My sisters could always make her laugh. But to me the gifts felt like dead reminders of what she had loved in life. Only the live voice, the sharing of a long-loved story, seems now to have been worthwhile. And I never finished.
But I do not regret the pain her death still brings me. That pain acknowledges how important she was, how much I loved her. I regret that her grandchildren who lived so far away cannot share that pain, but feel only the empty regret of not having known her.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Regrets drag you down unless they’re being used in the present to avoid the mistakes of the past.
The people who are efficient, ambitious, executive eagles run roughshod over regret, while the drunks, melancholics, poets seem to dwell with it, swim in it. I do know this: God forgives the past that needs forgiving. Regrets can be rainbows arching over the road to eternity.
Pennsboro, West Virginia
There are two things I live for: love and fun. I honestly don’t believe love can be lost, though at times it seems to be. Anytime in my life that love seemed to pass away, or get away, or get missed or destroyed, I found upon looking closer that it had only taken some other form, perhaps more subtle, perhaps more internal than external. A kind of energy conservation principle applies: love can be transformed but never annihilated. So when I have regrets — which is all too often — it is never over loss of love, only over loss of fun.
By a series of happy coincidences I had a chance to get in free to the December 30, 1983 Grateful Dead show in San Francisco, but I decided against it because a close friend’s girlfriend was celebrating her thirtieth birthday on the same night and I had received a special invitation. I had a good time at the party, but then the next night I heard that the Dead show had been . . . well, THE SHOW. If I had been there, no doubt I would have been transported into Grateful Dead Heaven, where everything falls away but the sheer spirit of celebration. But I had missed it. I considered this mediocre luck in a crucial season. I found myself regretting it for the first six months of 1984, and I felt it was portentous of all the fun I was going to miss that year through bad decisions or just through circumstance. Summer came round and I came down with mononucleosis while everyone else went up to the California Rainbow Gathering and had revelatory blissed-out times. A couple of good friends insisted that they had me with them in spirit the whole time, but somehow that just didn’t cut it. 1984 would go down as my year of missing the fun, and it would hurt for a while.
Late last year I decided to go on the Great Peace March — a nine-month cross-country walk for global nuclear disarmament — largely as a cure for all my regret. I figured, here was an Incomparable Experience that I would not miss, and it was bound to be so rich in all the things that I lump under the deceptively generic heading of Fun that I need never pine away again over any missed experience. I’m writing this now in Brooklyn, Iowa, about five months into the march, and I’m not disappointed. Nevertheless, even within the context of this marathon peace-walk/camp-out experience there have been (naturally) plenty of opportunities for regrets. And what I’ve figured out is that, in terms of fun, there will always be another chance, another Great Occasion even Greater that the one I thought must have been the Ultimate One of All, which I missed. Just as love is conserved, ecstasy is regenerated.
I think this points to what lies at the heart of this whole business of regrets, for me at least. Regret is a product of an erroneous relationship to time. It follows naturally from the attitude that time works against me, that time is finite, limited and treacherous, that time giveth and time snatcheth away permanently, and so I must be very vigilant in order to get the best of it. Letting go of regret is largely, for me, a matter of learning to flow with time, to get with it instead of against it.
True, some things do seem to disappear with time, and perhaps even so will my own consciousness (though lately I doubt that). But as soon as I accept the passage of time and the seasons, the disappearances, the rebirths, I no longer feel alienated from it. I feel so much a part of the process that a sense of loss becomes ridiculous.
Seriously now, nobody has those anymore, do they? Such a formal, mournful word. “We regret to inform you. . . .” Not even regretting the reality, just the communication of it. It’s a back door word knocking on the front door in full dress uniform. A fringe-hoverer never quite getting down to the heart of it.
Despite the alleged depth of the “deep” that regrets seem to be related with, they always come pristine and well pressed. No sweat. To me the word implies pity rather than compassion, finality not change. Let’s put our Regrets up in lights or on a goddamn billboard where they belong. And do it to a rousing John Philip Sousa tune. They have no call to linger around down here with us commoners just trying to get on with it.
I had so many regrets: my upbringing had warped me; my family had repressed me; my attitudes were ineffective; my personality and my physique were unattractive. I regretted myself. I wanted to be good, but my good intentions changed nothing; they were merely the smooth paving over the waste rubble of regrets that formed the real substance of the road to hell.
I left that road years ago when I found out its destination. I have no regrets.