A couple of weeks ago, my EC and I were busily talking while driving down the highway. The conversation stuck with me, and my wife inadvertently finds herself, yet again, as the genesis of a blog post. The conversation went something like this:
She said, “I regret that I didn’t go to nursing school.” (She had been accepted, but changed her mind when she was young and single.)
“You would have been good nurse…but…”
“Well, I wonder who you would be married to?”
“What do you mean?”
“If you had gone to nursing school in Arizona, you probably wouldn’t have met me at BYU, and you would probably be married to someone else. I wonder if you would have kids – or grandkids, and who they would be?”
“Wait – I take it back. I don’t regret not going to nursing school.”
“Phew! Good choice!”
I have thought a lot about that conversation and how regret pays a part in all our lives. Most sane people have some regrets. Sometimes we regret things we did, often we regret things we didn’t do. (I tend to fall in the latter.)
My initial conclusion was this: Most of our regret, and the time spent focusing on regret, is wasted time and emotion.
But those thoughts evolved, and I started thinking about how regret can be a good warning sign to avoid future problems, and regret can also spur us towards repentance, as needed. In that context, regret can be helpful, and/or even necessary.
Even so, I am still not a fan on focusing on regret, or wishing we could go back and re-write our history. (I must acknowledge that we watched “Back to the Future” this past week. Anytime I see a time-travel movie, I am reminded of the idea that a small “tweak” can make a big future impact.)
For example: My wife and nursing school. Or me and decisions on where to live, what to do for a living, or how to live. One minor change can drastically alter the trajectory of a life. And that can be good – or bad.
As for me, I would not dare go back in time and change anything – and that includes both good and bad experiences. Why? Because I would not want anything to interfere with my NOW – my current situation in life. If I had not lived the life I lived – warts and all – my life would not be the life I have now.
And I like the life I have now – warts and all. (At least I like it enough to want to hang onto it.)
I am good with keeping my wife, my kids, my grandkids. I am fine at looking back at the experiences I have enjoyed and endured through the course of my life. Some horrific, some spectacular. Take ANY of them away, and my current reality, flawed as it may be, would not be my current reality. I will keep my “now,” thankyouverymuch.
In that context, I regret nothing, and I would not go back and do things differently.
As I was thinking through this, I began to wonder if any of the Brethren had spoken to this “anti-regret” notion. Leave it to Elder Uchtdorf to take it on. He gave a talk in 2012 entitled “Of Regrets and Resolutions.” In it, he nailed down one of the key ideas I was wrestling with:
“The more we devote ourselves to the pursuit of holiness and happiness, the less likely we will be on a path to regrets. The more we rely on the Savior’s grace, the more we will feel that we are on the track our Father in Heaven has intended for us.”
That is the difference. If we are on the right path, regret is a waste of time. It is when we are off-track that those regrets start screaming to be heard.
Then President Uchtdorf spoke about what most people who are on the verge of death tend to regret the most. He broke it into three:
- Perhaps the most universal regret dying patients expressed was that they wished they had spent more time with the people they love.
- Another regret people expressed was that they failed to become the person they felt they could and should have been. When they looked back on their lives, they realized that they never lived up to their potential, that too many songs remained unsung.” (This one gets to me.)
- Another regret of those who knew they were dying may be somewhat surprising. They wished they had let themselves be happier.
His antidote to those three causes of regret are quite simply expressed – though not necessarily easy to master:
- Resolve to spend more time with those we love.
- Resolve to strive more earnestly to become the person God wants us to be.
- Resolve to find happiness, regardless of our circumstances.
That seems to be the path to living a regret-free life. Which would be a happier life to lead, and an easier life to exit when that fateful day arrives.
When things are tough, it is easy to fall into the trap of focusing on what we regret – even though it is kinda pointless. For me, the best remedy for obsessing about regret is to look around me, take inventory, count my blessings and realize that the life that I have lived, and the choices I made have led me to this very moment: a moment that I am happy to in myself in.
On those occasions where the regret feels more legit, it is usually because I am not at peace with my current “now,” and am looking for something to blame – even reaching back years to find something to pin my discontentment on. In the context of eternity and mortality, that sounds quite silly.
Wallowing in regret is a good indicator that we are not where we need to be. Either we are fixating on things that don’t matter, or we need to fix things that do matter.
Which brings us to legitimate, useful regret. Sometimes regret can be a good thing, as it can spur us to improve and repent. Elder Uchtdorf tackled that as well:
“If we have sinned or made mistakes—if we have made choices that we now regret—there is the precious gift of Christ’s Atonement, through which we can be forgiven. We cannot go back in time and change the past, but we can repent. The Savior can wipe away our tears of regret and remove the burden of our sins. His Atonement allows us to leave the past behind and move forward with clean hands, a pure heart, and a determination to do better and especially to become better.” (ibid)
Often we wrestle with regret when we need to repent, but sometimes we wrestle with regret long, long, long after we need to. Elder Robert D. Hales said it this way:
“Finally, and most importantly, choose to believe in the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Accept the Savior’s forgiveness, and then forgive yourself.
After you are on the path and are “free to choose” again, choose to reject feelings of shame for sins you have already repented of, refuse to be discouraged about the past, and rejoice in hope for the future. Remember, it is Satan who desires that we be “miserable like unto himself.” Let your desires be stronger than his. Be happy and confident about your life and about the opportunities and blessings that await you here and throughout eternity.” (link)
It seems that regret can be useful – especially when fresh – if it moves us towards repentance. We don’t have to regret the wrongs we have committed – if we have repented of them properly. We can focus on the now and the future, instead of wallowing in shame and regret.
Living a regret-free life seems to be a do-able and is a worthy goal. Living with regret unnecessarily seems to be a way to suck the joy right out of life.
In conclusion: If Chrissie were a nurse, I’m her husband would be proud – whoever he might be. But I got her, so there!