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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Regrets? Doing It Your Way

"The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

--Omar Khayyam

We all carry the burden of regret. Often, we find ourselves looking back with distress about certain events in our past. Although we cannot change a line of our life story, we cannot forget mistakes and lost opportunities. Some of us become sad victims of sorrowful longing with deep, rueful emotional wounds we carry to our graves.

The study of psychology reveals that regret is a negative cognitive/emotional state that involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome. In doing so, we feel a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been or wish we could undo a previous choice that we made. It is difficult to train our minds to repress what we perceive to have been major slips.

How horrible to feel such an emotion? Not necessarily. For young people, regret, although painful to experience, can be a helpful emotion. The pain of regret can result in refocusing and taking corrective action or pursuing a new path.

Some people who experience deep regret try to change by living more "in the moment." They begin to appreciate small blessings and find happiness in their daily surroundings. As new setbacks inevitably occur, these folks realize time will change and better days are on the horizon.

Even if we can't change our past, should we analyze our behavior and its consequences by facing regrets? Consider that regret has been rated highest of a list of negative emotions in fulfilling five functions:

(1) Making sense of the world,
(2) Avoiding future negative behaviors,
(3) Gaining insight,
(4) Achieving social harmony, and
(5) Improving ability to approach desired opportunities (presumably because we regret past passivity).

(Melanie A. Greenberg, Ph.D. "The Psychology of Regret."  
Psychology Today. May 16 2012)

Regrets From "The End"

I recently read an entry from the blog "Love Story From a Male Perspective" by James Russell Lingerfelt. James has worked in palliative care for many years. His patients were those who had gone home to die. He shared some incredibly special times with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.

Lingerfelt said ...

"People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learned never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them."

When questioned about any regrets his patients had or anything they would do differently, Lingerfelt said common themes surfaced again and again. Here are the most common five:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.   

As I read this list, I began to see connections running through the top five regrets. Read them again yourself and see what I mean. People regret lacking courage to apply self expression. When denying themselves sufficient self-fulfillment, for whatever reason, they become unhappy.

Now, it's easy to read my interpretation of the most common regrets and consider a hedonistic philosophy is most desirable. Yet, I think a philosophical doctrine that holds that pleasure is the highest good or the source of moral values does not accurately describe the five reflections.

What does seem to be the most important theme here is that people value individuality over conformity, yet most are more than willing to submit to conventions when the waves get choppy. They think their own self-expression may "rock the boat" and cause it to sink. Thus, they become conditioned to remain in the silent majority.

So many look back with regret on sacrifices they have made that limit their ability to live their own way. Instead of exhibiting the fortitude to maintain their concepts of personal integrity, people accept many constraints on their liberty because they feel insufficient in expressing their feelings to others.

Unhappy individuals often unknowingly accept restrictions on their liberty and freedom. They enter social contracts and become a part of institutions that give them group identities -- they become spouses, divorcees, club members, political party advocates, sunshine patriots, sports fanatics, bikers, goths, holy rollers, Facebookers, geeks, rednecks, and divas. Each association feeds their egos yet exacts a price from their true identity as a unique human being.

The bottom line to me is this. Lingerfelt learned that most people regret that they cannot communicate their feelings adequately. God wired each of us to be "one of a kind." Not only do we need to explore our own desires early on, but also we also need to have the liberty and opportunities afforded us by our birthright -- as long as this autonomy does not infringe upon the rights and lives of others.

Such a life of confident freedom makes work bearable and simple happiness affordable. Given a voice, eccentricity and peculiarity can be strong, positive human traits. I believe humans long for expression, and I believe they should develop skills to make their personal articulation clear.

As a society concerned with harboring those with fewer regrets, we must work on toleration of difference and celebrate individuality -- not falsely believe such individuality is afforded by joining groups with narrow, self-contained philosophies.

In short, have the courage to "let yourself" be "your good self." You will still have regrets, but they will be mistakes of your own making. And, isn't that all any of us can expect?

Link to
the blog entry at "Love Story From a Male Perspective" by James Russell Lingerfelt: 

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