“Regret haunts baby boomers.” The headline, appearing in a December 2007 issue of The Toronto Star, immediately got my attention. My age group. An emotion I’ve been known to possess. I read David Graham’s opening sentences:
Edith Piaf had none.
Frank Sinatra admitted to a few.
And in The Remains of the Day, the dutiful manservant, Stevens, is haunted by them.
Regret. Researchers suggest that it is second only to love in our most often felt and referenced emotions. How many times have you looked back over your life and said, “if only I’d …?” Let’s be honest. We all do it from time to time, and more often than not, we’ve been told to “get over it” (something my more analytical husband has said to me when I’ve take a turn into the land of regret). But Psychologist Neal Roese, author of the book, If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity, argues that it’s better to embrace our regrets and use them to move on as smarter people. Regret, he argues, serves a necessary psychological purpose, helping us to recognize opportunities for change or growth, and even hope for a better future. Just like Terry Malloy, Marlon Brando’s character in On the Waterfront, regret drives us to work for change. “Regret pushes us forward,” Roese says, “helping us make better choices in the future. It stimulates growth.”
I agree, but I also realize that regret isn’t something we can banish as easily as we’d like. Just last week, when someone asked how I began leading expressive writing groups for cancer survivors, I responded by telling her how my cancer had provided the impetus to shift gears and do work I truly loved. I described the joy I experience from my writing groups, and then, without pausing, I added, “I just regret that I didn’t do this sooner.” ”If only…” I had just diminished a big chunk of my life to the dust bin of regret, rendering it unimportant and wasted time.
Regret helps us make better choices in the future, Roese says, but my first reaction is to protest. I work with men and women whose futures have been cut short by cancer. What purpose does regret play in those situations? As soon as I write that sentence, I remembered Varda, who was part of my very first writing group for cancer survivors. She ultimately lost her battle with metastatic breast cancer, but for the many months she was part of the group, she was as fearless in her writing, in her honest and penetrating examination of her life, as she was in her determination to live as long as she could. “When I awoke with cancer, “she wrote, “Regret was my first visitor…” In Varda’s essay, entitled “Dancing with Regret, she turned her regret into a character, a shadowy, dark presence who danced with her each night, “dipping and gliding through bad choices and unforgiven hurts…” As she continued to write, however, the theme of regret was replaced by a humorous and poignant looking back at her life–with all its challenges, foibles and rewards. In a final poem entitled “Faith,” we discover how far she has come in her journey: “My cancer has challenged my faith,” Varda wrote, “and I have found an incredible well/ I did not know I had…true surrender, enormous peace.”
Varda’s words reminded me of how often the theme of regret played in my father’s conversations after being diagnosed with lung cancer. He was given just three months to live, and for the first few weeks following the diagnosis, regret was a constant theme as he traveled back over his life. So many times, he ended a story with words like “I just wish I’d gone ahead and…when I had the chance,” or “if only I hadn’t…” As sad as those conversations were, I was privy to extraordinary glimpses into my father’s life and feelings. I realized his regret had served a purpose, much like it had in Varda’s final months: my father was remembering the whole of his life, who he had been, who he had become, and as he did, he was making peace with the inevitability of his death.
“Imagine you wake up with a second chance,” Rita Dove writes in the poem, “Dawn Revisited.” Most of us are given the chance for a “do-over,” as Jan, one of my cancer writers put it: our cancers go into remission or we’re declared “cancer-free.” We recover from a debilitating illness or painful life event. Do we linger in regret or find new meaning to our lives? I never would have begun leading writing groups for cancer survivors if I hadn’t had cancer myself. Do I regret not doing it sooner? Of course, but the irony is, of course, that I wasn’t ready to do it earlier, and what’s more, all those life experiences I had before cancer informs the life I lead now in valuable ways. Nothing in our lives, as the poet Dorianne Laux reminds us, needs to be stored as regret.
Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read to the end just to find out
who killed the cook. Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.
Not the love you left quivering in a hotel parking lot, the one you beat
to the punch line, the door, or the one who left you …
You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still you end up here.
Regret none of it…
(From “Antilamentation,” in The Book of Men, by Dorianne Laux)
Think about regrets this week, about all the times you’ve said or wondered “if only…” How have you harnessed those regrets and moved forward differently? What have you learned? What has cancer taught you about regret? Write about regret. Write about “if only.” See where it takes you.