Engaging and Navigating Regret

This past year was unlike any other we’ve experienced.

Our plans, goals, resolutions, and carefully crafted calendars for 2020 were all but thrown out the window as a result of the pandemic. It’s normal to look back at the year with grief for all that was lost and not accomplished. The feeling of regret, however, can become so heavy that it pulls us down into a cycle of negative thinking, contempt, and judgment.

Last year, Dan and Becky addressed the issue of regret, and how so often our regrets inhibit us from reflecting well on the past. To address regret, Dan says, we need to be able to acknowledge that it is a “cheap counterfeit” of what we are afraid of, which is allowing our hearts to open to what we most desire in relationship with others. Regret has the ability to open ourselves to dreams and desires, but we need to ask ourselves: Can we bless our desires, even in the midst of this sadness?

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Episode Transcript

D: Well, there is no one on the Earth that I would rather end a year and begin a year with than my beloved wife. Thank you for joining me, Beck!

B: It’s good to be on with you, honey.

D: Well, we’re going to talk about the end of the year, the beginning of the year and many ways, I think, as we talk about the end of a year, I think it’s really important to address the issue of regret. And as we begin a year, we need to address worry in many ways right from the beginning. What I want to say is, we define it. Try and put words to it, try and explicate it through our own lives. I want you to hear that. In many ways, regret and worry are almost identical. Regret is reflection of worry on the past, and in some ways worry is anticipation of regret in the future. So as we deal with these two topics, we’re really wanting you to hear: they do bookend one another. So as we come to think about the nature of how a year ends, I’ve noticed a lot of friends say they don’t reflect back on a year. They don’t go back through a calendar. They don’t reflect on major events. They just get on with the next year because Christmas is such a compelling and complex season, it’s easy just to get overwhelmed, come to the New Year, and sort of set your sights forward to what is ahead. But I’ve asked again and again: What keeps you from reflecting on the past? Often the word regret seems to come up.

B: Yeah, well, we don’t want to go back to anything that we felt disappointed in ourselves. Really, we want to move forward and certainly with friends too, we want to forgive and move on and not linger into what might have been something that caused you regret. Either they did or you did to them. So yeah, plus it’s just such a busy time.

D: Well, it’s easy. Easy to get so caught up. And then, to sort of go through the New Year’s process, make some resolutions, have a few major goals… but we know, I mean, the research has indicated that within six weeks I mean, health clubs are packed for about the first six weeks. And then about February, mid-February, it tails off because people have not, frankly, from my standpoint, done the work of really asking: What’s my heart doing with the reality of my past and my future? So, we’re trying to open the door to why it is regret is so easy, or escape from regret so much easier. And in many ways, what I want to begin with is the right hemisphere. Our brain is oriented toward the negative, which may sound really awful, and can be for most of us. But the fact is, God in his grace has enabled our brain to function, often at the perspective of what went wrong. What is not well, how can things be better, and you know, when I think about my year, as we were preparing for this podcast… one of the first things that came up were a number of heartbreaking moments of failure in friendships where I didn’t follow through where I wasn’t kind or strong on behalf of dear friends and then of him. Let’s just say, other scattered thoughts, including this one significant fish I missed when I was fishing, you know, in Montana. And I could see, I could see exactly the place I was in. I could see the fly moving across the water. And right before I got to this rather large boulder, I pulled my fly up. Just then a fish darted out to get it, and I literally plucked it away from this beautiful fish. So after facing I think some significant failure, my mind went back to the lucidity and clarity of a moment that really doesn’t matter. But nonetheless, that’s where my mind went to.

B: Huh, well, so in that regret, do you feel guilty that you didn’t catch it?

D: I feel stupid, OK?

B: So, you feel shame, then?

D: Well, nobody saw me. I was fishing with my dear friend Steve Call, and he was probably 30 yards away, so he didn’t even notice. I didn’t even tell him, I didn’t want to… [laughs] Yes! Yeah. All right.

B: I was wondering where you were going to go with that one.

D: Well, but the fact that our brains actually take in disasters and major errors or bad decisions, disappointments, and conflicts. We are literally designed by God to take that in with a level of openness and curiosity and engagement. But what happens is that those moments often become so heavy and weighted that they take us down. This is why I’m going to define, for the moment, regret as a grief that is drowned in contempt and in judgment. So, one of the reasons we often don’t look at our year is, I’m just convinced as I can be that: we’ve all had moments relationally, a little project work failure, you know, tasks that we thought we would get done or partially got done. As I look back over my year, there’s a lot of brokenness and a lot of scatteredness. It was a complex year. And not to go through the details, but to say: we each have significant things that we bear weight over.

B: And so if we go with that regret over and over and over again, it just brings us down, brings us into depression or shame, or it brings us into just not even liking ourselves. And right there is a downward spiral that’s not going to get you very far in the day, other than, you know, bad news. So, I think there is just so much to not sink down that we need to keep in play in our hearts, minds and spirits so that we don’t end up weighted down.

D: And that’s why the image for me is of drowning, like going down. You can feel something pulling you down, under. And the important word that you used is– that we go back over it. The actual word is perseverate. We kind of think about it. We go over it, we go over it again, we go over it again. And then we have that. Oh, I only wish I had not done X Y Z. Or only if I had done so. We end up in that: “I would, I could, I should” bind where we end up, in one sense pulling ourselves even deeper into the well into the harm of what we’ve endured.

B: Yeah, and once you start going down that hole, it’s really hard to get yourself out. I can’t help but think of a regret my father had: it was a phone call he needed to make within 30 days, and he forgot the 30-day mark of calling. And it was a financial situation, and it actually is the final regret that he made that ended his life. He ended up in a depression. He could not forgive himself. It was the beginning of the end, which is what regret could be if it’s out of control, spinning downward.

D: Well and to underscore that it, in some ways that regret was the proverbial gun that took his life. It was the basis by which he was unable to rebound, reengage, and move forward. He had other health issues, but it really was the movement toward death. So, when we say that this is a drowning, it can become such a weight that a person can’t actually begin to participate in the goodness of life. So, what I see is, it’s grief. If we would understand that the goodness of regret is that it often takes us to grief, to a lament, a sorrow that we have not given voice to engage. Or, given our bodies to actually suffer and to open the door to what this loss or injury or insult has actually brought to our very being. And so regret has at least a goodness to it in that it opens the door to a grief that’s not being addressed. But that question of, why are we drowning? Not just in one sense, being drowned by the regret, but in some ways we drown ourselves, which I really want you to hear. Regret is a form of violence against our own selves. It’s a form of violence, eventually, against others. Because in the midst of regret, we’re going to actually cause other people to swirl with us. But the keyword is that: it’s a grief drowned in contempt.

B: Yes! And so I think you have to love yourself. You have to at least like yourself. You have to like the path you’re on or the actions that you are doing, Otherwise, that spiral is going to take you down. And so I think that’s a pause to think, What am I doing right, and what can I change with the things that have caused me to regret? And I think that’s really important because that’s how God looks at us. Not with, like, you’re a lost cause. You’re out of here. And I think we’re supposed to cooperate with the kindness of God.

D: Well, I think the question that you’re bringing is: why would we turn to contempt? Why would we allow ourselves to be bound in that kind of judgment of, I’m stupid, I’m a fool, I should never have made that decision. Even if it’s accurate that you shouldn’t have done so, the question then is: Why can’t you allow yourself to confess, to repent and to participate in the sweetness of what it means to bear the delight and the honor of God, and the delight and honor of others, including your own delight and honor for the gift that you are to yourself and to others? So that’s the question of: why is contempt easier? What does it keep us from engaging? And in many ways, I would say that at least it brings us to judgment, which feels like a way of making ourselves pay.

B: Yeah, and in that judgment, it’s harsh. It’s not kind. And instead of judging ourselves, I think it is so important to be curious about why you did that or why you didn’t say that. Be curious. And in that curiosity, which does take reflection in time, there’s an opportunity to be kinder to yourself if you’re not judging. But being curious, that’s a different stance.

D: It is, and it just requires an ability to be able to say: what was going on? not, what’s going on. But with that curiosity, without kindness, the curiosity will be a form of interrogation and an assault rather than– really! I spoke these words at a gathering, and it offended and hurt a dear friend, and how did I not? How did I not have an awareness? Now again, there’s failure. I mean, almost all regret circles around some level of failure. But can I enter my failure with kindness and curiosity versus pressure? And that sense of judgment leads to the pressure of, I won’t do that again.

B: It does. It does. It just zaps you of joy! And, yeah, again, in that kindness, we need to be our own self-talk of comforting ourselves. I was listening to a mother explain something to a child, l a four-year-old, and she was stunning. And I couldn’t help but think, Can you imagine if my mother or father would have dealt that kindly and curiously, with me? Rather than judgment and shame and anger? So a lot of this time as I’m ending, you know, I’m probably in the last quarter of my life. I don’t want to continue that harshness, that judgment. I want to cooperate with curiosity and comfort and understand.

D: And I think judgment pressure that comes with regret virtually always shuts us down. This leaves us in this position where it’s actually keeping us from being able to desire. In other words, there’s something really functional. I don’t mean effective. I don’t mean lovely, But there’s something functional about regret because it leads us away from kindness, comfort, and frankly, it shuts down desire. So, it gives us in the strangest sense of the word, it gives us some sense of control in the face of feeling out of control. It gives us some ugly form of control and power, and that’s where to give up regret is to in one sense submit yourself to grief. And perhaps to repentance, and perhaps to an engagement with the people that you have harmed to begin the process of repair. But it’s so much easier to be against yourself than to begin that process of confession, of repentance and repair.

B: And also, when we’re that way, it changes our body! We release stress hormones. It actually wreaks havoc on our energy level, our immune response, I mean, our body suffers when we turn against itself. We totally are just making it worse. And they even say, our brain, you know, people who complain a lot and find fault, and they’re critical. That area of the brain grows larger. They actually then become imprisoned by their own thinking that started out as maybe a regret over this or regret over that. So I mean, it’s nuts what we do to our bodies.

D: Let’s just say very bluntly: There has to be something in addressing regret. Where we just look at it and say, it’s really fundamentally a cheap counterfeit of what we’re all afraid of, and that is really grieving. Of allowing true conviction to open our heart to what it is that our heart most desires in relationship with others. So wonderful you have to almost stand to say my heart is not worthy of that kind of seduction to be taken to regret. There almost has to be a kind of hell no! Hell, no will I give into regret. But then, obviously, we want regret to open the door to the desires and dreams truly to what did you lose? What did you fail in? What did you not do or become that does bring your heart sadness. And can you, in the midst of that sadness, begin to blast the desire and pray that indeed we might be able to bring heaven onto this earth? I just think, Becky, of what we spent, I wouldn’t say every day but 300 days out of 365– praying together The Lord’s prayer. You know, in so many ways, that work of coming back again and again to desire, to that which we say: on earth as it is in heaven, was just for me a constant reminder, at least in the year 2019, don’t kill desire. Don’t let anything, particularly regret, take away the breath of desire.

B: Yes, it was so good to say that in the morning together. And then once we were in bed, very tired. We almost always chose to say the Lord’s prayer again and again. It was just a new exercise of realizing that we could do more than we think we can. A lot of times we’re so tired—could we pray? Yeah, we can. We can. And so I think that’s the strength that I want to lean into, as the years go by, to know that I can go ahead. I can desire what’s right and good. I can choose.

D: Well, and one of the things I did. And I’m not gonna go into the specifics, but I captured four or five specific moments. Ah, pretty significant loss or failure where someone truly expected something from me. And I just didn’t engage well. Either I didn’t do anything, meaning I avoided it, or I offered something and it just wasn’t what was meant to be. And I looked at projects that I started, didn’t finish, projects that I thought I would start, didn’t even start. I just sort of scattered through the year by time and by topic and came to four or five major points where it would be so easy as I reflect on 2019 to regret. And then making that decision, No, no, no. I want to blast this simple phrase: on Earth as it is in heaven. And then to be able to say, How do I pray for bread? Given that situation? How do I pray for forgiveness that my debt would be canceled in that I would cancel the debt of others? And that I would not be led into temptation, particularly in this case, the realm of regret? And to be delivered from evil? In other words, the Lord’s Prayer really helped me reflect, even though we’ve reflected on it a lot over this year, it actually was a brilliant re-entry into looking at the year and being able to say, Where did I see bread? Where did I fail to receive the bread that was given? Where did I forgive, or didn’t forgive? Where do I long to be forgiven and don’t actually know how to do that on my own? So using this is a template, it really opens the door to being able to say: Please don’t leave the year 2019, don’t go too far into 2020 without going back temporarily to what 2019 held for you. The goodness, the brokenness, the beauty, the losses, the grief, the injuries. But also the restorations, the victories, the moments in which you have seen the goodness of God in the land of the living, and that will prepare your heart to engage 2020 I think, with a very different disposition.

B: And I think that disposition hopefully is contentment. Can you find contentment with yourself? Can you find contentment with your life? And so, because I think you need to get along with yourself. And I think you ought to enjoy yourself. And I think that’s possible and I think that brings peace.

D: It does. But what doesn’t bring peace is what will address soon. And that’s the issue of worry.