observations and opinion
The saddest two words in the English language are…
They say we shouldn’t have regrets, or shouldn’t dwell upon them. The former seems to me the logic of a sociopath; the latter can be good advice, but if we have regrets what use are they, if we do not dwell on them a little? I think regrets are like hats: they always mess up your hair, but should be worn when needed.
Usually our regrets form around past decisions, actions which led to bad outcomes, or omissions which cost us something good. A regret cannot really form around a meaningless choice – there have to be consequences, and bad ones, to spawn a true regret.
If there is a safe way to experience regret, it might be around decisions which inflicted modest cost upon us but which now offer valuable lessons. You buy a monthly gym membership and only make it there four times; it would have been cheaper to buy day passes; you’re out a little money (regrettable) but this may offer a lesson or two: you need to re-organize your time to make the monthly worthwhile, or maybe you just hate the gym and should do something else with your time. Like whatever you’re actually doing with it.
But there are some things worth regretting, such as the hurt we cause others. Maybe we see the clumsiness, thoughtlessness or even meanness of our deeds; maybe we can learn to do better. But at what price, and at whose cost? It is one thing to suffer meaningless pain ourselves, another to inflict it on others. These regrets, it seems to me, are the ones we are most obliged to ponder.
The unhealthy, or at least very sad form of regret, is the one born not of what you did, but of where you are. This casts a shadow over everything, past, present and future. At times I have felt such regret, looking down roads not taken: a lover spurned, a job declined, a job taken, the words not spoken. Such thoughts can put you on a street corner one morning saying “my God, how did I get here?” You’ve been on that corner. I’ve been on that corner too.
But then of course, the future came. And the future cured the past.
I have felt, since my daughter was born, that whatever mistakes I made up until then, were not really mistakes. Oh alright, they were mistakes, but they were (or became in the long run) mistakes with a purpose, mistakes that added up to something good. But for how I lived before, the kid would not be here. She’s not perfect and she’s not easy and she’s a work in progress (a teenager), but she’s HER. I wouldn’t want her to be anyone else.
I saw the day of her birth as the Big Equal Sign: everything to the left of it was the math puzzle of life; the little pink thing to the right of the equal sign, was the product. Based on that philosophy, many past decisions were suddenly translated from epicly regrettable errors to “minus signs” and “long division” in the math question. To regret them now means to ignore their results.
You will recall George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life;” he regretted his own existence and so wished himself away. When the wish was granted and George could see the losses inflicted on the people and place he loved, George Bailey understood that mistakes, pain and grief are part of the equation that reaches the present. It wasn’t just Zuzu’s petals that disappeared, after all.
This is not to say that becoming a parent, or any single moment in life, suddenly cures the past of its other regrettable features or consequences. It cannot. It should not. But you have to do the math – all the math – before you are done. You wake up every morning on the right hand side of the Big Equal Sign, you see.
I was an odd kid. That cannot surprise many readers now. Early on, maybe ten years of age, I became a fan of talk radio. I listened. I even phoned in. Our local station had Tom Cherington, an articulate, imperious fellow (Fraser Crane in an echo chamber) whose voice breathed disdain. Many callers felt his wrath, yet despite his fearsome nature I had the temerity to phone in occasionally, and he was endlessly polite to the child prodigy phone-in kid.
One evening, debating “on the air” with Mr. Cherington, I obnoxiously said “If you only at ate at McDonald’s, you’d die of scurvy.” This was quite brilliant I thought, and might even be true[i]. The statement was greeted by dead silence and then a strange voice, saying huskily “sorry we can’t put that on the air, we’ll get sued. Goodbye.” They hung up on me.
I regretted the mistake (what the hell did I know about libel and slander?) But I learned about the “delay” they have on radio, and I learned about defamation in a highly memorable fashion, and I learned that my very clever words can have very calamitous consequences. I was to re-learn and re-learn that, or maybe not really learn it, to the regret of others and myself.
It was on a separate occasion, I believe my last as a “guest” on the Tom Cherington Show, that I learned something real and important about regret. Whatever we were discussing, sparked in him a thought.
“Do you know….” he intoned piously, “do you know what the saddest two words are, in the English language?”
“No, sir” I replied, teeing-up the lesson.
“If only” Cherington said. “The saddest two words in the English language are, ‘if only’”
I don’t know what I said after that. I remember hearing the words – seeing them in my head, the way I sometimes do. “If only.” The lesson stuck.
And so I seldom say, “if only.” In fact, it is hard to remember ever doing so. My mistakes were real but they are behind me and perhaps the only thing I can do is learn not to make them again. Maybe I should put “the regret hat” on more frequently, but I tend to wait until it is really, really cold. Every day I hear other people mutter regrets, big and small and my reaction is always the same: impatience. Your life is either behind you or in front of you. Where do you want it to be?
That is not to say I am immune. I really regret the times I made someone feel bad. These are the mistakes that someone else pays for. I wish I had been kinder to my father, more patient with my mother, more honest with my brother; more forgiving – and less forgiving – with myself. I wish I had been a better friend, a better colleague, a better man.
I wish I had said “I love you” more often, at the moments it was absolutely true, but was too scared or too smart to say it. And I wish that I did not miss so much, the ones I miss so much. But I do.
Yet for all my wishes, they seldom feel like “regrets.” The past cannot be undone, but what is left undone, might still be made to be. No, I haven’t mastered ice skating yet, but you know…. maybe I will. Humour me, will ya? Hell, I just staggered to the finish line of a 5K, and not one person on the planet thought that would ever happen. Well, one person believed: not me, the kid. She believed. I think maybe that’s part of what love is, knowing that who someone is, includes someone they can become.
Last night the kid and I went to her school’s annual “Father-Daughter Dance.” It is teenagers in fancy dresses, fathers in suits and tuxedos. The girls dance while the men swap stories and look at their watches. The dads are sometimes called to slow dance duty, swaying little dance partners across the floor. The DJ plays a lot of oldies, which the kids all seem to know. When “Billie Jean” came on, I embarrassed my “date” by demonstrating a stuttering Moonwalk. Later the girl was mortified when I sang along to the Twilight song (“sshhh Dad!”) yet she was forgiving enough to smile and sing along too. When the clock struck midnight, the music stopped, the girls tottered to the cars in their teenaged heels and their fathers took them home to their dreaming sleeps.
When morning came, the world and all of us in it, were a few hours older. Our troubles and the things that need fixing around us, were all still there. Each of us opened our eyes alone. So did you. But you know, we all woke up in the same spot too: on the right hand side of the Big Equal Sign. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division; it’s all brought you here.
So go ahead, put the hat on and take a look back behind the equal sign. But then, face forward, because it’s time to do the math.
[i] Of course, it is not true. McDonald’s food is wonderful. And their lawyers are particularly nice.