Our Walk in the World: Regret

Our Walk in the World: Regret


Making amends can help loosen the weight of the past.

We all struggle with regret and making amends. It can be hard to climb out of the canyon of lament at how our lives have unfolded, and to discern what can and can’t be done as we move forward. The word regret comes from the Old French word regreter, “one who bewails the dead,” and this goes further back to the German root meaning “to greet.” We always face these two phases of regret: to bewail what is dead and gone, and, if we can move through that grief, to greet the chance to do things differently as we move on.

I regret the years my father and I wasted while we were estranged. I regret having fallen backward on my dear dog’s right paw when she was five, which broke a bone under a tendon. I can still hear her yelp. I regret that 1,500 copies of my second book, my epic poem Fire Without Witness, were destroyed without my knowledge. I can hear the characters trying to run off the pages as they burned.

I’ve learned that regret is like striking a large bell in an empty field and then running through the wild grass trying to gather the sound of the strike back into the bell. It’s impossible. All that’s possible is to strike the bell again, to have the new sound layer itself over the old. The grip of the first phase of regret is that the pain of grief can make us think, if we only did this or that, our pain of loss might be somewhat lessened. In our grief, we can become fixated on wanting to undo what can’t be undone, when the precious urge born of grief, in time, is the want to do something new, differently.

I’ve also found that making amends can help loosen the weight of the past. Making amends means that I finally remade my bond with my father when he was 90. And that I loved my dog even more, that I told her I was sorry as I rubbed her lame foot and kissed her head, that I was patient with her slow, arthritic gait when she was older because I had contributed to it. And making peace with the burning of my books means that I had to move beyond the injustice to the deeper conversation I was being asked to have with impermanence.

When tangled in regret, we can fall into a storm of urgency, as if our future depends on whether we can unravel some knot in our past. And the grip of regret keeps us from the immediacy of life around us. All the while, we continue to suffer through our fears: that we’re not good enough, that we’ll never find love, that we won’t be able to face our suffering or endure the loss of those we love. All the while, our heart only needs the open air and the life-force waiting in the next moment to revive itself.

Still, on any given day, the attempt to undo what can’t be undone and our preoccupation with the knots of our past can plague us with a dark thirst that can’t be quenched. When packed to the brim with memories, wounds, worries, dreams, opinions, and schemes, we become limited in what we can hear or receive. With no room in our cup of being, less and less can touch us. So if you have trouble hearing or taking things in, give of yourself—anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes, the only remedy is to empty ourselves and begin again.

This is the work of love: to give, to empty, and to make room for life. Why? So we can listen to all that is abundant, to all that is needed, to all that is not us. Our small fate is to be a constant carrier of abundance to wherever we find need. The more we are emptied of our personal echoes, the more we can be present to what is alive before us.

When I regret something now, I try to let the sound of my heart play itself out like the strike of the bell in that field. I try to be with the emptiness I’m left with. Until my pain over the friendship that failed miserably 20 years ago makes me want to be a better friend to the person I just met. Until the cup I broke that my wife, Susan, made, that couldn’t be put back together, has me hold everything I pick up as if it were a baby bird. Until the love I’ve spilled throughout my life has me pour what’s in my heart slowly on whatever I meet that needs watering.

Questions to Walk With

  • In your journal, describe in detail one thing you regret having done or not done. How much space is this regret taking up in your heart? How might you begin to stop lamenting your loss and do things differently as you move on?
  • In conversation with a friend or loved one, tell the story of someone you love with whom your feelings are entangled. Separate which feelings are yours and which feelings are theirs. Make a list. Let a week go by and revisit the list, and continue the conversation.

This excerpt is from The One Life We’re Given (Atria).

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