The Realm of Regret
My husband has a phrase that makes sense when he is talking about finances, but sometimes he says it out of the blue. He will say, “I should have bought Amazon.”
In 1997, like any academic, Dan purchased lots of books, but that year he began buying lots of books from Amazon. I remember when he said, “I need to invest $10,000 in Amazon.” That $10,000 would be worth more than $200,000 today.
There are moments I join him in that regret. I would love to be able to help our children more and to cover the cost of our grandchildren’s college education. And every once in a while I think of what it would be like to spend a month in Paris.
I wish that we could have a “do-over.” Don’t you? The principle behind a do-over is that we all make mistakes. But a do-over is a fantasy built on regret. Anytime that we are in the realm of regret that is built on the structure of an accusation, we are in dangerous waters.
I catch myself doing this as a result of COVID-19. Even though I have no control over this era, I can linger in the sorrow of what I have missed. I know I sound like a broken record when I start down this agonizing road, lamenting that I’ve not been able to hold our new granddaughter since she was five weeks old. That was more than a year ago. This sentence does not serve me well.
In the last year of my father’s life, he forgot to make a phone call that cost him a significant amount of money. I remember talking with him on the phone and pleading with him to realize that our family would be fine without that money. He would be fine.
My father’s failure to make the phone call and rumination over his error led him to such self-hatred that it literally was the beginning of the end of his life. He held himself guilty for a mistake. Within four months he was in hospice care and refused to eat or drink.
I have been listening to David Whyte’s book, What to Remember When Waking: The Disciplines of an Everyday Life. I have paraphrased a long sentence that settled deeply into my heart. It is about being merciful to one’s self:
“We don’t have to be an image of perfection. We understand that every human life is involved with cyclical humiliation and embarrassment; of taking the wrong turn, doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, or saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time.”
If to err is human, even for the learned and wise, then why do we succumb to the acid bath of regret?
Regret is self-punishment that turns our mistake into a blood sacrifice. This may seem extreme, but no one can tell me that my father didn’t die for his mistake. A do-over was not possible for him—he could not turn back the clock and make that fated phone call—so he charged himself guilty and punishable by starvation. I was helpless to change his verdict. I could not keep him from death.
Regret seems easier to bear than asking for help. It fuels the impulse to pour salt into the wound, or even more graphically, to gouge at the wound to make it worse. Somehow, if we grind ourselves down, we lessen the possibility of others doing so, while performing a sacrifice for our failure.
Even the wish for a do-over is a refusal to be formed into a new person by our actual or perceived failures.
We don’t need a do-over; we need a once done and forever possible. As a follower of Jesus, his sacrifice is the only blood I need to cover my shame. His resurrection is the only promise of redeemed possibility I need to craft beauty out of brokenness.
Kintsugi is the Japanese art form of binding the parts of a broken piece of pottery with gold. The tendrils of gold bind the broken parts into a reminder that everything is broken, but what is most shattered can become even more beautiful than what originally was whole.
Every human being has been hurt, misunderstood, unseen, and harmed and yearns for the harm to be erased. Our desire for a do-over is a hunger for a day when all losses are restored and all scars reveal the sacrifice to become even more beautiful.
Now, when Dan utters that plaintive regret, I remind him that his bride is worth more than a thousand times the net worth of Jeff Bezos.