For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been!' (John Greenleaf Whittier: 1807-1892)
A few weeks ago, I spoke with a friend of many years. Typically, we remain in close contact, exchanging emails and phone calls on a regular basis. However, I noticed that he had stopped our contacts, and my efforts to reach him went unanswered. Finally, as if by chance, I phoned and spoke with his wife. I asked how he was, and I told her I missed him. She said he had not been well; she stated that he seemed "depressed." Later, perhaps prompted by his wife, he did phone me, and as she said, he told me he had been feeling "depressed" and found himself, as he approached 80 years of age, to be filled with thoughts of regret, and his inevitable passing. "There were," he said, "so many things I wish I would have done, and so many things I wish I would not have done."
As Shakespeare would say, "Aye, that's the rub!" I suspect all aged people feel this way. There is an inclination in aging to explore the "If only ..." memory in an effort to make sense of what has occurred and what has not occurred in one's life. I once wrote some brief lines: "If: A two-letter word, simple in sound, profound in consequence."
As I age, I find my thoughts returning to the days of my youth -- to the accumulated memories of people, places, and events once stored unobtrusively in my brain, now awaiting the chance to be revived, considered, and to find a place in my present life, long after they occurred.
I believe pre-occupation with my past is not a chance event. Rather, I think aging is compelling me to examine who I am today, by ordering my past in an endless process of recall, reconsideration, and recovery. The process of recalling and ordering past and present is bewildering and exhilarating -- it is also exhausting. Memories flow into one another with a rhyme and reason known to themselves, but compelling me to search the mystery of their attachments and associations.
I wonder, as I reflect, whether what I am doing is engaging in an evolutionary process -- a natural response in aging -- in which we are driven to make sense of the flow of birth, life, and death, as part of the life impulse itself. It is a challenging process, sometimes filled with great discomfort and inevitable regrets. I find myself cruising along in the process, and then suddenly up pops a regrettable event that makes me exclaim aloud: "Oh my God, did I say that? What was I thinking at that time?"
And yet I am drawn to the process of recall and response each day. While I understand the value of focusing on the moment, my memories refuse to be denied, entering and coloring my life whether I am cooking, cleaning, washing, reading, or interacting. More and more, I have come to think that the constant entry of memories is not an intrusion, but rather a process that enriches my life by inviting me to give context to who I am at this point in my aging life when encounters with mortality are becoming more frequent.
Initially I was perplexed by the constant return of memories, each demanding re-consideration at unexpected moments -- seeking a new place, position, and importance in my being. At some point I concluded that what was occurring was an effort after meaning -- an effort to make sense of who I am, how I got here, and how I can better understand life itself as I enter the autumn of my years.
It seems to me there is an inherent process in human life to seek connections across past, present, and future, even as regrets are encountered, considered, and weighed, forcing me to ask again and again, "Who am I?"
By the time one is older, one's identity should be stable and strong -- no longer subject to the doubts, uncertainties, and angst of adolescent years. But, maybe the quest for identity is lifelong, and not limited to certain ages or stages. I am pressed -- pushed and pulled -- to reflect on my person an effort after fulfillment, an opportunity to seek answers or questions. Perhaps memory intrusions are reminders to pursue reconciliation of past and present, to negotiate fact and fiction, to grasp the merging of reality and fantasy, and to better understand being and becoming. Much of this process, as I wrote at the beginning involves the word "if."
I am not a man caught in depression, despair, or melancholy. Indeed, quite the opposite. I find myself at this very moment in time, more alert and conscious of the complexities of life -- personal life, collective life, natural life. History is our story. It can be read and understood, if one chooses, as the narrative of a species "pushed" and "pulled" by forces inherent in both human evolution and in cosmic creation.
In my immediate existence, I now probe my mind, recalling events and people in my past -- an array of images and feelings, vague and clear, clouded and transparent, misty and vibrant. All documenting my life! I try to give them meaning -- to cast them within a rationale appropriate both to their time, and to the moment.
Some Closing Thoughts
What can I say? I say we should consider life a privilege. It is better to be alive -- to have experienced life, even with its trials and tribulations. We are unique -- a one-time miracle accumulating experience -- learning, changing, adjusting, and adapting; we are capable of regretting, and yet renewing by forgiving our self and others. The word "if," as I wrote at the beginning, has the power to bring regret into our lives. But regret can be an opportunity to forgive oneself, and to forgive others, and in doing so, to grasp that life is about renewal and about pursing understanding of the larger order of things.
We are gifted with life, not as some chance event, but as part of a larger unfolding or evolution of the cosmos itself. We are part of the very force that animates the universe. On a star-filled evening, I gazed at the heavens. I was lost in their endlessness, but it was I who beheld the glory, conscious of the grandeur and the splendor.
I found in that moment, and now in aging, that I am part and whole, and that acceptance of the nature of the part and whole means recovering connections between self and others. Regrets can be reconsidered and reframed amid the mystery of time in which decades of life are compressed into a moment's memory. I can live with that; I can die with that.