The blessing of regrets

The movie is half over, yet once again Deborah stands up, wanders around the house, stoops to wipe up some spot on the floor she alone sees, and then returns to be with the rest of us.

Liz, a friend of mine, had invited me over for the evening and we were watching "The Way" with Martin Sheen. Her mother, a woman in her 70s, repeated for the fifth time her comment that each of the characters in the movie were on a different journey. They were on "the way." Ten minutes later, Deborah was up out of her chair again. She is suffering with Alzheimer's disease.

Time is quickly moving and Liz feels the anxious need to try to stand in its path, to stop her mother's dementia from pursuing its path into some unknown misty future. Liz often takes walks with her mom, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, unconsciously hoping that by standing close to her, she will somehow find the way to slip into her mother's inner journey in order to offer her comfort and support. It is hard for Liz to reconcile to the reality that she is closed out of that place where her mother is going. It is her mother's journey.

But in some way it is Liz's journey too. A journey of memories — both happy and sad; a time of remembering all the things she wants to say before it is too late; a chance to show her mother the love that had been taken for granted.

Whether it's a member of our religious community, a mother or father, sibling or friend, any movement along the later stages of the way of life can stir up within us the many-headed dragon of regret. Isn't that, in fact, one of the themes of "The Way," as a father heads overseas to recover the body of his estranged son who died while traveling the El Camino de Santiago, and decides to take the pilgrimage himself?

As we navigate the choices and struggles of life, our relationships often provide grist for the mill as we contemplate how happy we are with the life that has been ours. Each of us has his own unique history, her own story; a life checkered with successes and failures, mistakes and sins, things we wish we could have said, would have said, or feel we should have said or done. 

It only becomes possible to think back with some regret when we've lived long enough to have had dreams that have come to fruition and others that have been dashed. Long enough to have had successes and bitter failures. Long enough to know that confusion and chaos enter our lives so easily. We get wrapped up in what appears to be the best choice, only to have the tables turned on us unexpectedly.

When we enter this time of our lives in which we might feel regrets, we somehow forget the beauty, the joy, the happiness that have been ours. In the growing awareness that we aren't all we've hoped to be, we sometimes can forget the beauty of who we actually have become. Only God's mercy can teach us to weave together the dark and light threads of our days. Only both of these can create the beautiful tapestry of our life as God has meant it to be.

Processing regrets, whatever they may be about, can be very painful. A couple of years ago I found myself sinking into depression, believing the lie that God couldn't love me or forgive me. I felt I had nothing to say for my life. I didn't know any longer who I was.

During this time, I learned some things about dealing with regrets which you might find helpful as well:

Regretting has its own time. It is a passage we go through, the timing is not our own. But that doesn't mean that you need to sink under the heaviness of the memories that weigh on you.

It's important to seek to be grateful. Your mind, will and heart will be resistant to the very idea of gratitude. It might seem like lifting weights to think of even one thing for which to be grateful.

Try this trick I've learned from St. Theophane the Recluse: Though your thoughts and will resist gratitude, they will follow you if you convince them that it is easy and useful to be thankful. Speak directly to yourself, almost as if you were speaking to a child, with firmness and encouragement, and you will see that your faculties will begin to have strength again. 

Trust the process. Healing and transformation will help you discover new meaning in your life. It isn't in the outcome but in the journey that you will find the gold. 

Having regrets isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's a necessary first step to change. In "The Way" the father's regrets — his being knocked off balance temporarily by his son's death and his subsequent journey across Spain — were a time of tremendous inner growth. The turmoil eventually turned into peace and finally into joy.

The important lesson here is that he did something. He made a decision to carry out a pilgrimage which separated him from the banal and busy aspects of his life. As he breathed in the fresh air of the El Camino, new life was pumped into his heart.

In the months and years in which my heart ached with regrets, I certainly couldn't take off to Spain for a pilgrimage, but I did create some sacred spaces that were different from my daily routine. I spoke with friends. I spent some time in coffee shops. I made extra retreat days whenever I could. I walked outside and read the works of spiritual giants. It was my own journey on the way. Each of us will find our own path, but you need to take the first step.

Make a list of what you want to do. You still have time! The blessing of regrets is that they awaken you to the authentic desires you have to connect to others, to God and to your own inner depths. As you realize things you wish you had done or done differently, make a decision to follow up with what you still have time to do. See it as a "to do" list from God, a shower of unexpected blessings.

Among other things, I took my "regret" years as a time to explore who I was as a writer in this second-half of my life. I forced myself to answer the question: What is it that I needed to say and how would I say it, whether or not it ever got printed?

None of these tools magically dispelled the sadness overnight, but they did lead me on a pilgrimage. Regrets can be what precipitates launching out on the way with fresh vigor. Walking it may allow something lighter to enter our spirits, give us room to breathe. Maybe even let us laugh a little.

And we'll discover that, no matter what our regrets have been, the way we have taken has had a meaning, a purpose, and a gift that is now ours because we had the courage to take up the journey that had been given to us as our own.

[Daughter of St. Paul Sr. Kathryn James Hermes is the author of the best-selling book Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach as well as a number of other titles. Everything she does or writes has one focus: giving people the tools for joy by radically shifting their focus through Presence. She works with individuals online at pauline.org/heartwork, and her newsletter can be found at pauline.org/sisterkathryn.]

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