The man in my life begins to rattle off a list of regrets. His jaw is set and resting in his hand, his gaze is fixed somewhere in the distance, and his voice is unusually monotone. I tell myself he's melancholy because of a recent birthday.
50 is tough enough. 60 can be tougher.
Still, I'm concerned. He's a man of many accomplishments, he loves his job, he's in excellent health, and he rarely rehashes the past. So why the sudden sentiments of self-reproach?
As he talks about what's bothering him, I realize that he lives his regrets as something more than disappointments. He lives them as failures.
I respond by reciting a litany of achievements he ought to be proud of, and I assume his mood will pass. This isn't a midlife crisis; it's a moment of unguarded honesty.
Personally, I've never experienced a midlife crisis per se. To hear him tell it, nor has my partner. We've both reveled in our separate highs and survived our most painful lows, with my own worst days tied to a midlife divorce, money worries, and the subsequent challenges of starting over. His challenges, on the other hand, seem less linked to a specific event.
Yet as I listen to his most personal thoughts and observe his uncharacteristic stillness, it occurs to me that midlife is the age of regret, and possibly, the truest test of what we're made of.
As I consider what this may mean, a lyric pops into my head: I can hear Frank Sinatra crooning "Regrets, I've had a few..." while next on memory's hit parade is Edith Piaf. Hers is an emboldened embrace of all that life has to give, as she claims no regrets at all in "Non, Je ne regrette rien."
Seemingly on opposite ends of the spectrum, to my mind, neither is dealing in reality. I interpret the former (Sinatra) as lip service, and the latter (Piaf) as a show of defiance. After all, what rational person truly has no regrets? Don't we all regret some careless decision, some hurtful behavior, words spoken or withheld -- and eventually face the consequences? Shouldn't we find lessons in our regrets and use them to our advantage?
It's easy to succumb to bitterness when a marriage turns sour, when divorce offers little relief, when jobs are lost, when ideas don't generate money, when support systems fail, and when family situations spiral out of control despite all our best efforts. We can beat ourselves up with nothing to be gained, when we're be better advised to use remorse as a springboard for action, and to see the universal nature in our regrets.
Who couldn't find herself in one of the following statements?
I should never have married him; I should have had another child when I could; I should have taken better care of my health; I should have walked away from that fight, that relationship, that job; I should never have walked away from that fight, that relationship, that job.
When I'm down on myself (whatever the reason), I determine to examine the past in order to glean nuggets of wisdom from mistakes and successes alike.
For example, I could view divorce as a personal failure, but I don't. Instead, I understand that I always need to trust my gut, I see my capacity for love and commitment, I marvel at my sons as they move into manhood, and I'm grateful for the ability to reinvent myself. As another example, I could view the end of my first career as a failure, when in fact it more closely resembles a transformation, and I'm happier in my second chapter (or perhaps my third) as both a writer and a marketer.
On difficult days -- we all have them -- I struggle to retain a balanced view of opportunities cut short, roads not taken, words left unsaid, remarks exchanged in anger, and yes, bad luck. But to stew in our own sorrows? There's no point. On the contrary, it's invaluable to pluck awareness from disappointments, and adjust attitudes and actions accordingly.
Is this easy to do?
Not especially, but it gets easier with practice. And here's my bottom line: I see where I am, I see where I've been, and I see where I wish to go. Statistically, I have decades of potential productivity in my future, so why not focus on that? Isn't aging gracefully a choice, at least in part? Aren't curiosity, creativity, adventure, learning, love, compassion, contribution, invention, reinvention, pleasure, and fun options at any age?
I have come to interpret this "age of regret" as an "age of opportunity" as well. In our 50s, it's only logical that we look back. We would be wise to infuse the process with all the knowledge, perspective, and finesse we bring to everything we undertake at this stage in life.
In this light, I listen to the man I love enumerate his regrets. At the top of his list -- he regrets not spending more time with his kids when they were young, and he regrets not attempting to start his own business. The second remains an unfulfilled dream that he no longer wishes to pursue. As for the first, which is most deeply felt, in recent years he's made strides in establishing a closer relationship with his adult children.
So perhaps we should ask ourselves how we will use our regrets for the better, as midlife is an excellent time to trade the concept of midlife crisis for ongoing assessment. Even if we're struggling, we're well positioned to re-evaluate priorities, and not only visualize what we can still accomplish and enjoy, but actualize it -- or try. Isn't the absence of trying itself a source of profound regret?
A version of this column first appeared at Daily Plate of Crazy.