What to Do with Regret
Yesterday morning my sister and I were talking on the phone. She told me that her husband’s grandmother, Betty, had passed away, the grandmother that had practically raised him. My sister, her husband, and their kids were very distressed because her death was entirely unexpected. She was elderly, but she wasn’t sick. What the coroner pieced together is that in the early hours of the morning, she slipped outside, probably to tend to one of her cats, and accidentally locked herself out of the house. The spare key she vigilantly stored in the garden shed somehow had been left on the kitchen counter. Instead of going to a neighbor’s house, Betty attempted to climb through a window and had a terrible fall.
Incidentally, she died exactly one year after her husband to the day, and they both passed away in the same room of their house. I like to think this is more than mere coincidence, perhaps evidence of God’s signature on an otherwise tragic event. I imagine a joyful reunion in the spirit world for Betty and her husband, a truly selfless and loving couple.
Death is a sobering fact of life. All of us must meet death at some point, rich or poor, black or white, ready or not. The Spanish poet Jorge Manrique wrote on the passing of his father:
Let from its dream the soul awaken,
And reason mark with open eyes
The scene unfolding,—
How lightly life away is taken,
How cometh Death in stealthy guise,—
At last beholding;
What swiftness hath the flight of pleasure
That, once attained, seems nothing more
Than respite cold;
. . .
Let none be self-deluding, none,—
Imagining some longer stay
For his own treasure
Than what today he sees undone;
For everything must pass away
In equal measure.
Our lives are fated as the rivers
That gather downward to the sea
We know as Death;
And thither every flood delivers
The pride and pomp of seigniory
Thither, the rivers in their splendor;
Thither, the streams of modest worth,—
The rills beside them;
Till there all equal they surrender;
And so with those who toil on earth,
And those who guide them.[i]
Everyone dies. In the Middle Ages, churches were purposely decorated with images of rotting corpses, skulls, and other memento mori, or reminders of death, so that congregants would feel inspired to repent. In the town of Bar-le-Duc in northeastern France, there is a beautiful sculpture of the wasting body of a young prince offering up his heart to God. Someone who worshipped at that church was meant to see the sculpture and have the desire to remedy his or her life before it grew too late.
My sister attended Betty’s funeral yesterday and found it a sobering experience. I haven’t attended a funeral in several years, but in addition to being able to mourn with those who mourn, funerals serve as sometimes uncomfortable reminders of our own mortality. We might experience a similar feeling of discomfort as we look over the obituaries in the newspaper. Have you ever been challenged to write your own obituary, to imagine the words that would be said about you? What would you be proudest of and what would your regrets be?
During General Conference a couple weeks ago, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf gave a talk entitled “Of Regrets and Resolutions.” In it, he discusses three of the most common regrets people face at the end of their lives: 1) People wish they had spent more time with their loved ones; 2) People wish they had lived up to their potential; And 3) People wish they had let themselves be happier. By examining these three common regrets for ourselves, they can act as a sort of focusing lens.
To pass time with loved ones is pretty easy. I’m sometimes amazed at how, as a stay-at-home mom, I can be with my kids for an entire day without having a whole lot of interaction with them. I sit at the computer typing, while they color at the kitchen table or play in their room. Most of the time I’m very grateful they are growing more independent and leaving me with a little more free time. But to spend quality time with loved ones takes more work (and for me with my girls, a LOT more patience). It sometimes takes setting time out from a busy schedule.
I’m a huge fan of to-do lists. I will scratch out a to-do list over breakfast in the morning and feel a great sense of accomplishment when I check off the items on my list. Sometimes I’ll put something really trivial on my list, such as “brush teeth,” just so I can get the satisfaction of checking it off. Of course, these lists we make for ourselves can be good and bad, depending on our priorities. I realized after reading Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk that I can make more room on my list for my girls, my husband, and my far-flung family, involve them a little more in my life.
I love the example Pres. Uchtdorf uses in his talk about how the Savior always made time for people. He taught them, he listened to them, he made sure people knew they were important and loved. “Busybody” would not be an accurate description of Christ.
Pres. Uchtdorf says another common regret is failing to live up to one’s potential. How can we make sure we are living up to our potential? This one is a little mind-boggling for me. As children of God with seeds of Godhood in us, we have limitless potential. Men can grow to become like Heavenly Father. Women can grow to become like Heavenly Mother. Of course, even when we die, we will have much growing to do to reach our full potential. But we can be heading in the right direction.
I just finished a lovely book called The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Towards the end, one of the characters is hit by a dry cleaning van. I won’t say which character because I don’t want to ruin the book for anyone. As this woman lies on the pavement dying, she has a life-flashing-before-her-eyes experience. She says goodbye to all her loved ones in her mind and feels sad for them, rather than feeling sorry for herself. Just before she passes on, she realizes that she hasn’t accomplished much, but that it’s okay because the trajectory of her life was very good right then. She was opening her heart to love for the first time in years. She had run across the road to try to protect a homeless man. She had been mentoring and sheltering a young person who needed care.
Because we cannot predict when our last moment on this earth will come, we should be consistently conscientious of the trajectory of our lives. We should strive to learn from yesterday’s regrets to build a more beautiful now. Pres. Uchtdorf says,
Let us resolve to follow the Savior and work with diligence to become the person we were designed to become. Let us listen to and obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit. As we do so, Heavenly Father will reveal to us things we never knew about ourselves. He will illuminate the path ahead and open our eyes to see our unknown and perhaps unimagined talents.
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.
Lastly, President Uchtdorf discusses how there are many people who regret not letting themselves be happier. How do we let ourselves be happier? Vitamin D supplements? More sleep? I know sleep works wonders for me. Pres. Uchtdorf states:
So often we get caught up in the illusion that there is something just beyond our reach that would bring us happiness: a better family situation, a better financial situation, or the end of a challenging trial.
I know I’ve fallen into this trap more than once. Oh, when I graduate from high school, then I’ll be happy. When I’m done with college, then I’ll be happy. When I get married, when I have a baby, when my kids are both potty-trained, then I’ll be happy. When I get out of the Texas heat, then I’ll be happy. And on and on. Pres. Uchtdorf continues:
The older we get, the more we look back and realize that external circumstances don’t really matter or determine our happiness.
We do matter. We determine our happiness.
One of my favorite things Pres. Uchtdorf says in his whole talk is this:
Brothers and sisters, no matter our circumstances, no matter our challenges or trials, there is something in each day to embrace and cherish. There is something in each day that can bring gratitude and joy if only we will see and appreciate it.
His statement reminds me of a short poem called “Today” by Mary Oliver:
Today is a day of
dark clouds and slow rain.
The little blades of corn
are so happy.[ii]
Despite the dark clouds and slow rain that visit us (both literally and metaphorically), we can look for the small joys, the little blades of corn, that lift us. Sometimes that might mean feeling genuine happiness for someone or something else and taking up that rejoicing for ourselves.
I remember when my husband and I lived in Albuquerque, NM. My husband and I were both attending grad school and living in a small studio apartment. One beautiful October day, my good friend, Sabrina, and I were headed out for a run. We met at a park near a river trail to stretch out before we took off. As we stood there trying to touch our toes, she shared the good news with me that she was expecting. I’m ashamed to say that my immediate reaction was to feel sorry for myself. My husband and I had been hoping for almost a year to share similar news with our friends and family, but as yet we had no children. My kind, sweet friend had been afraid to tell me because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings. After a few minutes, I snapped out of my pity party. I realized how selfish it was to feel sad. I thought about Sabrina, what a good person she was, what an excellent mother she would be, and then I thoroughly rejoiced for my friend. As we ran along the trail skirting the Rio Grande, we discussed her exciting news. I think we both felt as elated as the colorful hot air balloons that floated high above us in the blue. I was glad that I allowed myself to put my own issues out of mind and just feel joy for her.
I believe that as we spend quality time with love ones, stretch ourselves to live up to our potential, and allow ourselves to be happier, we may not have zero regrets, but we will certainly have fewer of them.
[i] “The Coplas on the Death of His Father, the Grand-Master of Santiago,” From: Hispanic Anthology: Poems Translated from the Spanish by English and North American Poets. Collected and arranged by Thomas Walsh. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. New York, 1920. <http://users.ipfw.edu/jehle/poesia/COPLASEN.HTM>. 12 Oct. 2012. Web.
[ii] Oliver, Mary. “Today,” Swan. Boston: Beacon P, 2010. (p. 14). Print.