Monday, March 04, 2013

Maybe We Should Regret the Past

One of the Promises from the book, “Alcoholics Anonymous” says, “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.” Yet we hear people with good recovery sometimes admit that they still have regrets. Is that flawed recovery or is that good mental health?

We talk both in and outside of recovery rooms about not having regrets and suggest that it’s a good thing.  What I think we mean by that is that we don’t want to be stuck in or shamed by our past. But if we have been around a while we all have some “stuff”—things we did and people we hurt.  They may be things from before our recovery began, though for many of is they are also things that happened over the years of our long recovery. We are not saints.

We often think of our regrets as mistakes but they are not quite that.  Living without regrets isn’t possible. And maybe it isn’t even desirable.

A new book, “Missing Out—In Praise of the Unlived Life” by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips presents this very provocative idea: We need regrets to shape our best lives. Phillips suggests that the regrets that we hold represent the options we didn’t choose and they are the mechanism that let us see the life we did choose.

This makes sense when I read the daily news. Life changes in a split second. We understood this after the World Trade Towers were attacked and again with the Indonesian tsunami. On a smaller scale we feel it any time we read about a terrible accident or a fire.

A couple of years ago my life had to change. Someone asked me, “But what about your career?” and I answered, being flip but surprising myself with the truth, “I don’t have a career, I have a life.”

That insight had been incubating over time. When my brother Larry was just weeks from death and we finally, awkwardly got around to talking about that reality, I took a deep breath and asked, “Are you afraid to die?” There was a long silence. Then he said quietly, “Di, all I ever did was work.”

I love my work too. But the day that I see the water receding too fast at the beach or hear the terrible screech of tires, or notice the cough that won’t quit I want to be more or less OK with my choices and with my regrets.

 If we live a conscious and examined life we should die with at least a few regrets. The goal isn’t to have no regrets; it’s to be fully aware of them and what they represent.

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