Forgive yourself, for you did the very best you could do in every situation. Let go of all guilt and blame.
~ Sri Ramakrishna
Regret is the polar opposite of happiness. Depression is, perhaps, the most pervasive and dangerous disease we, as a species, face, and regret is the rocket fuel in its engine. Thousands of years of the most lucid teachings ever recorded are available to us, from beings regarded as no less than avatars by their followers, to the giants in the world of psychology, admonishing that we dispense with regret...Though very, very, few among us are able to do so.
Please examine your thoughts for five minutes. See how often regret pops up. If you are like me, you won't last more than a minute before something from the past, something you'd prefer had been different, arises.
Such thoughts seemingly never disappear. And never will. So...What do we do? Practice mindfulness? Ingest more SSRIs? Commit more time to therapy? All helpful options, perhaps. Good luck.
When I was 19, and newly paralyzed, I read Ram Dass' Be Here Now, and have loved him ever since. One could make a case that the title of this legendary book encompasses all one ever needs to know or do. It provided great comfort to me, especially during those moments when regret seemed to take hold.
But regret can be unrelenting. For months following my injury, I couldn't help but review every detail leading up to the dive I took into the ocean that resulted in fracturing my spine...As if, wishfully, attempting to change the course of events. Regret fed an abiding fear of the future. Would I ever be able to function independently? How was I to pay for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospital bills that I was amassing? Where could I possibly live, now that I was to spend my life in a wheelchair?
And on... And on... And on.
It did not help that, at the same time, our culture saw the birth of the "You can have it all" mantra that has since dominated the ever-expanding media through advertising, exhaustive celebration of outrageously wealthy individuals, and the hundreds of self-help books authored by purportedly happy people that dominate bestseller lists. I recall once, at the suggestion of a friend, even ordering the Tony Robbins personal power material in order to "harness my untapped potential and manifest great things for my future." At the very least, I hoped to take a break from regret.
After two days, I returned the cds, explaining to the dumbfounded saleswoman on the other end of the phone that the reason for my dissatisfaction was "Tony was giving me too much power, and, to be honest, it's freaking me out." To her protestations, I offered, "I guess I'm not that interested in power," and got my money back.
And then, years later, I heard Ram Dass tell the following story:
"Centuries ago, in Eastern Europe, a farmer awakened to discover a strapping young wild stallion in his front yard. Impressed by his good fortune, he told his neighbor, who responded, `You never know.'
The following week the farmer's 18-year-old son decided that he wanted to train the stallion, in hope that it would help on the farm. He put a saddle on the horse and began galloping... Only to be thrown off, breaking his leg in the process. Observing this, the neighbor told his father, `You never know.'
As the boy lay immobilized in bed, emissaries from the Army arrived, with the purpose of conscripting young men to go off to war. Unable to go, due to his broken leg, the boy's life was spared. Observing this, the neighbor told his father, 'You never know.' "
Looking back to those moments in the hospital, with the benefit of thirty-five years of living since, I am buoyed by and feel resonant with the story of the farmer. For some remarkable things have transpired, directly traceable to that fork in the road that was my broken neck. Principally, had I not gotten hurt, I would never have found myself at the exact time and place at which I met a woman at a party... A meeting which subsequently led to the conception and birth of our son, seventeen years to the day, following my injury.
Do I regret being paralyzed? Given the above, that's easy. I never even think about it.
But what of the other regrets, that show up in my thought stream so continually? Things that are nothing, by comparison...yet get the better of me, all too often, by virtue of their mere existence. Regrets such as failed business decisions and judgmental things I've said, even though I've long since tried to rectify or apologize for them. Regrets that I am aware have no basis in the reality of the present. Maybe this sounds familiar to you.
Is it that regret is mourning a blown opportunity to create a better past, or ambivalence that the present is, somehow, missing something that might have been? Is it biochemical, or just a set of selected thoughts appearing among the thousands that neuroscientific research confirms occur each time we blink an eye?
We will never know. But the good news is that it doesn't matter.
It seems easiest to make peace with the notion that regretful thoughts are just thoughts. No matter how much meditating I do, how many holy books I have immersed myself in, etc., faith that we are all okay has, and continues to be, hard-won. But it is really the only way, for me.
And, if I ever forget...
I can think about the farmer, and the birth of my little boy. Because...
You never know.
Until next time, much love.