Maybe it’s the New Year. Maybe it’s moving and starting a new job. Maybe it’s owning a car for the first time in a decade and getting used to the oddly familiar but forgotten world of driving again. Believe it or not, driving is not like riding a bicycle. It doesn’t stay with you.
Then again, it could be that I have reached an age when mortality has buckled itself into the backseat. Friends and relatives have died, relationships, too. I passed the midpoint on the toll road of my life long ago. Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of all of these. I don’t know, but I should probably read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” again, especially since I measure out my life in coffee spoons, as undergraduates say, literally.
What am I going on about? Regrets. I started out with quite a few years ago, mostly the result of my tongue controlling the rest of my head rather than the other way around. This is so common that the ancient Hebrews wrote a psalm about it. “Remember not the sins of my youth or my rebellious acts; remember me according to Your loving devotion, because of Your goodness, o, Lord” (Ps 25.7).
I can recall one moment of discretion–just one–in my twenties. It occurred at the Maine Maritime Academy at a dinner of student representatives from colleges around the country. But even then the moment was thrust upon me since somebody else from our group was chosen to speak. He, being one of those guys who looks like an insurance agent in the fifth grade, pulled it off flawlessly. Interestingly, he has no recollection of the dinner and today runs his own insurance agency.
The older we get, the less we tend to worry about the sins of our youth. Of course, there are certain decisions and actions that cannot be undone. These usually involve children and career. For instance, it would be difficult for me to go to law school at this point in my life and impossible to attend Columbia, get a job as a production assistant at Saturday Night Live, or join the military. All of those trains clickety-clack-clacked out of the station long ago. I wouldn’t characterize them as regrets anymore, either.
So what are my regrets? They have to do with people–both the way I have treated them and the way I have let them treat me. That last part of the sentence took a long time in coming, but it is crucial to understanding the complexity of regretting. Respect for others requires self respect. We have all had the directive drilled into us that we must secure our own oxygen mask before assisting others.
There have been times I did not stand up for myself when I should have, that’s true, but courage is a tricky thing. Too little and you get pushed around, too much and you end up dining alone and suffering from high blood pressure. Still, I have not held back. I have erred on the side of excess, not deficiency, unlike most people. But I take consolation in a quip by Violet Crawley of Downton Abbey: “Nothing succeeds like excess!”
I can think of two regrets in particular that caused me to write this post, one silly, the other serious. I wrote about the silly one in an older post. It involves turning down an invitation to the senior prom from a sweet girl. The more serious one involves firing an admin on behalf of a colleague. If I could do them over again, I would enjoy myself at the dance and tell my colleague to do her own dirty work.
But who has the chance to do anything over again? Actually, I have been blessed with half a dozen mulligans over the years, so I can’t complain or shake my fist at God. Well, I could, being a New Yorker, but I won’t. Do-overs always feel anticlimactic anyway, never quite reaching the same level of intensity that the years of guilt leading up to them attained. Maybe it’s because we all move on.
That brings up another, related issue. I remember things that others don’t. Take the dinner in Maine. My friend doesn’t even remember being there let alone giving a speech. But it obviously meant something to me.
Count on J. Alfred to ask the fundamental question:
“And would it have been worth it, after all,/ After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,/Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,/Would it have been worth while,/To have bitten off the matter with a smile,/To have squeezed the universe into a ball,/To roll it towards some overwhelming question,/To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,/Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’—/If one, settling a pillow by her head/Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.'”
Regrets, I’ve had a few.