Who hasn’t wondered about “The Road Not Taken,” as Robert Frost put it so beautifully in his poem of the same name? With every choice we make in life, we choose one path over another we might otherwise have walked. Sometimes, we make our choices with great reflection and consideration. Other times, we make them spontaneously. Still other times, we make choices that, we can see in hindsight, were hampered by immaturity, self-delusion, and even willful ignorance.
We label our choices. Good choice. Bad choice. So-so choice. But the older I get, the less fond I become of labels. Sure, some choices lend themselves to being labeled “good” or “bad.” But when we step back and examine whether or not we have learned from a “bad” choice, we sometimes find that, throughout the years, the results of our learning and growth have produced good things, for us and for the people we love. But what about the bad things, the hurtful things? The things we reflect on with a twist in our stomach, that awaken us from restless sleep?
Enter regret. I’d venture to guess that pretty much everyone on the planet has experienced it. In particular, we feel regret when we’ve made choices that hurt other people, especially if those choices involved our own immaturity, self-delusion, or willful ignorance.
So, what can we do about it?
If we’re like Laurel, the main character in my new novel Heart’s Chalice, we run up on a portal that allows us to explore the world that would have greeted us alongside “the road not taken.” Heart’s Chalice is, partly at least, the story of how Laurel learns to deal with regret for the choices she made as a young woman. It’s human nature to wonder, “What if I’d made a different choice, way back when?” The characters who populate novels can explore these questions in a way that makes us reflect on what we would do in their position. Would we walk through those portals?
Would we like what we see enough to entice us to stay?
For those of us who don’t live and act on the pages of novels, regret quickly outlives its usefulness. When we hold onto regret, we actually hamper ourselves from growing, learning, and moving toward the future. When we cling to regret, we mire ourselves in the past instead of placing ourselves in a future might-have-been. Regret can be a great teacher in our lives. There are things I’ve done in my life that I deeply regret. But instead of living like a ghost from the past who haunts each of my present moments, I prefer to learn as much as I possibly can from the mistakes I’ve made and use that knowledge to go forward with increased awareness and compassion towards myself and others.
Therein lie the lessons of regret. Do we allow regret to become a weapon in our hands that we clumsily and blindly wield, hurting ourselves and others? Or do we alchemize regret into a powerful sword that we use to slice away the delusion in our own minds so that we can go forward with increased wisdom for our future choices?
The emotion of regret can become a portal of sorts, created by our own minds. When we step back and examine our regret with objectivity, we see our actions with greater clarity. With clarity, we can then acknowledge the mistakes that we never want to repeat again while opening our hearts to compassion for the growing, learning creature which we were back then, still are today, and will always be. We are all works in progress.