Over the last several months I have been thinking a lot about “regret” — both the concept in the abstract and two specific regrets I have somehow managed to tote along in my life for quite a while.
There are two competing perspectives, it seems to me, about “regret.” One school of thought holds that you can’t escape having regrets; they’re part of our human make-up. When we look back on our lives at different points, we wonder “what if” or question a decision made along the way. Friends around me have said, “There’ll always be regrets. No escaping. It’s human.” I’m not a believer in “everybody does” or “it’s part of being human.” What’s the spiritual solution to the mental obsession of regret?
Another school of thought says “get on with your life, no looking back, no regrets.” As that great philosopher of the late 1990’s said, “It doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.” Rafiki, from The Lion King, then goes on to say “You can either run from it, or learn from it.” The Swami Sivananda may have influenced Rafiki’s thinking: “Do not brood over your past mistakes and failures as this will only fill your mind with grief, regret and depression. Do not repeat them in the future.”
The question that has been running around my head, then, for the past several months, is how do you get to that place of “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it”? Of course, the past is past and what is done is done. I get that. But just saying it doesn’t end the thinking or sometimes the downright obsession with the regret.
In 1975 (yes it goes back to the summer I graduated from high school), I was denied admission to Colorado State University. My math scores were too low to be admitted into the College of Forestry and Natural Resources. CSU recommended that I attend Fort Lewis College in Durango, take my math and other general ed courses there, and then transfer to CSU. I decided in June of 1975, while working at the Colorado Outdoor School in Vail, not to pursue that path.
Instead, I worked in a factory for a few weeks and then re-applied to CSU as an Undeclared Liberal Arts student. And I was accepted. I went for one semester and withdrew again. During the next 13 months, I worked the night shift at another factory. When we got off at midnight, I would go home (usually after a stop at the Tam-O-‘Shanter Pub on Garden of the Gods Road) and write for two hours or so. I’d write poems, short stories, one act plays usually based on my experiences in the factory and the people with whom I worked. Motivated by the desire to write, I decided to return to Colorado State as an English major.
33 years later, after some minor turns and some major changes (like getting sober 31 years ago), I have been committed to my career in education. It has fulfilled me and I would like to believe that I have made an impact in people’s lives over the past 28 years devoted to this honorable profession.
So, where is the regret?
Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to learn to fly fish — which has meant hours spent in nature, in the mountains of Colorado, in the natural resources we are so fortunate to enjoy within such close proximity to our home. It has rekindled my inner young adult’s spirit: the guy who backpacked nearly every weekend from 9th grade through high school, who cross-country skied in the Colorado winters, who had two summer jobs of outdoor leadership after graduating from high school. The 20-year old’s voice keeps whispering to me “what if…Fort Lewis College… Colorado State.”
And over the past two and a half years, I have the had opportunity to write a blog for a local fly fishing shop. As I have developed my own fly fishing skills, I have had the opportunity to interview fly fishing guides, to write about some of the spectacular experiences Jannetta and I have had in some of the most beautiful country in Colorado. I have had the opportunity to advocate, at times, for the preservation and conservation of our natural resources, specifically cold water fisheries and wilderness preservation. It’s probably the most sustained writing I have done —even in its sporadicalness — over the past several (many, many) years. So the young adult factory worker, the one who was motivated to return to college to study the craft of writing and literary arts, is passing me mental notes: “what if … you had pursued writing more aggressively after CSU rather than heading into the field of education?”
Grace Slick captures the essence of my two somewhat interwoven regrets: “When you get older, it’s not about what you did that you regret; it’s what you didn’t do.”
As I write this, I see the beauty of my own life right now: the rich profession I have enjoyed for nearly 30 years; the opportunity to spend considerable time in the outdoors pursuing fly fishing (more than a hobby or pastime and closer to an obsession) AND with the person I love; the chance to write about that obsession, er…interest on a frequent basis.
(Amazing how writing will do that — reveal some truths about one’s own life. I’m not dissatisfied with what my life looks like and still …)
In studying “regret” — not the kind that could be defined by past actions (because two things can happen with those: karma or making amends) but the type of regret that can be defined as inaction or not accomplishing something — I have discovered this:
Henry David Thoreau writes “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret is to live afresh.”
I have probably attempted to smother the sorrow of not pursuing the academic path offered by CSU’s College of Forestry and the sorrow of not pursuing more aggressively my own desire to write. Thoreau’s comment to “tend and cherish” is more how I try and live today. His admonition to not “smother your sorrow” is, for me, right on target. It has never worked for me to try and stifle, smother, or deny my human emotions. Why do that with feelings of regret that surface? The question becomes: what to do with them?
“Tend and cherish” until it becomes a “separate and integral interest” sounds like detaching (with love) from the regret while also realizing its essence. For whatever reasons that a profession in Forestry or a more active engagement in writing did not materialize (addictions, then lack of focus, then lack of resolve), the “integral interest” is still with me. Who we are and what we know at a given point in our life form the foundation for our decisions made at that point. I think that what remains, the integral interest, will need to take a new form than they may have taken 30 years ago.
The road down the College of Forestry & Natural Resources and the road down total immersion in writing are still seen from my rear-view mirror. Any regrets that have traveled with me, stored away in the trunk of the car, can also allow me to “live afresh” on this road I have traveled. They don’t have to be smothered but, instead, freed to bring energy into this day. I think their essence will be part of my recovery as the two converge to meet on the banks of a river.
William Shatner says “Regret is the worst human emotion. If you took another road, you might have fallen off a cliff. I’m content.”
As am I.