regret personified: boy being stalked by dragon in the dark

In [my recently released] book The Best Advice So Far, I talk about my first kiss.  And while it was my first kiss in the sense of romance, it wasn’t strictly my “first kiss.”

In grade school, those of us waiting for delayed parents would find various amusements.  One such day in fourth grade (and in a religious school, no less), a small group of us went down a back hallway and through the Secret Door.  The Secret Door was, to us, much like a door from Alice in Wonderland.  Only, instead of leading to magical kingdoms with fanciful characters, it just led under the staging area for the church.

For us at that age, it really was a different world.  Once crawling through The Door, which was only half our size, the under-stage area opened up to be high enough by far for us to stand upon entering.  Then, like being in some sort of ancient ziggurat, we had to stoop lower and lower as we made our way back, beneath the inverted platform stairs.

Strewn around were various relics.  Musty choir robes in dilapidated boxes.  Stacks of tarnished offering plates.  Broken pieces of ornate wood from pews, churning our imaginations as to just how they’d been broken.  (Large parishioner?  Act of God?)

Above loomed pipes leading to the gray, resin bottom of the baptismal tank, where I myself had been baptized on a frigid winter evening several years before.  Church services and baptisms had been dutifully held during the surrounding weeks, despite the fact that the church had not paid its power bill.  The building itself was bitterly cold, even for those out in the congregation, tightly clustered within heavy coats and stamping their feet as quietly as possible.  But there I was, six years old, wearing only my swim trunks and T-shirt, shivering.  This paled in comparison to descending the steps into the water, where the ice across the top of the pool had been broken up only moments earlier.  My body shook despite the fact that more and more of it was melting into numbness, as I sucked in short, panting breaths, miniature icebergs floating all around me.

I’ve since thought that my encounter on this night was not all that unlike what passengers on the Titanic had endured.  It’s all good though.  I was assured that my “willingness to sacrifice” meant Jesus loved me just a little bit more than everyone else, and would have my back at some future time of real need by way of reward.

But I digress.  There we were – two girls, another guy friend, and me – sitting cross-legged in a tight circle in the Land Beyond The Door, playing a game.

A game of “Truth or Dare.”

Well, for some reason I’ll never understand given the particular company, at one point, I chose “Dare.”  (An omen of my life to come, it would seem.)  And that is when I had my first kiss, technically.

I won’t divulge too much about the female in question, but suffice it to say that she had long frizzy hair, glasses, a uni-brow, sour breath – and braces the metal of which was perpetually covered over with a strange, waxy orange substance that resembled (and may have been) the powder from cheese curls.  The dare was that I had to kiss her — on the lips – for a count of five seconds.  And you know the bridging “Mississippis” were not regulation length.

Enter regret.

Well, at least the idea of regret.

Had I the opportunity to go back in time and un-kiss the girl, would I?  Maybe.  But I don’t really think of that as regret so much as prudence brought with age.  In reality, I came away from the ordeal quite in one piece (though I do still shudder at the recollection).

Moreover, I now have another zany tale to tell.

Many of life’s less-flattering moments are this way.  They result in experience and gripping party stories.  No harm done.

Alas, if only our worst decisions were kissing the fuzzy-yellow-tongued girl in grade school.

Real life comes with more options.  Harder choices.  Bigger stakes.  The potential for higher achievement is always paired with an equal risk of more devastating failure.

Words are hurled which cannot be unspoken.

Relational rifts are forged.

Trust is broken.

Marriages crumble.

The temptation of a moment closes doors for a lifetime.

Or we simply wish we’d done more when we had the chance.

What of regret then?  I still hold to the notion that regret is an entirely useless, and thus wasted, emotion.

Regret is an entirely useless and wasted emotion.

Now, remorse – that is useful, insofar as it causes us to see and admit the error of our ways.  But remorse is temporary.  It is a moment of realization, or perhaps even a process of grief.   It instills wisdom and, with luck, changes future decisions.  But it should eventually come to an end.

Where remorse lingers, it becomes regret.  And regret has always seemed self-indulgent to me – a continual flagellation of sorts which we fool ourselves into believing somehow balances out our trespasses.  Worse yet is when regret turns the corner into self-pity, or an attempt to garner pity from others.  Perhaps if I remain sullen, decrying my past, others will be inclined to remind me of my virtues.

Again, I say — useless and wasted emotional energy.  It gets us nowhere.  It changes nothing.  If anything, it prevents real change from happening.

Beyond remorse, there is certainly room for movement with some similar words:  restitution and reparation.  Where remorse leads to realization and true sorrow, there are many times where a wrong can be made right.

First, the power of a sincere apology should never be underestimated.  It always amazes me the number of people I encounter who live in regret; and yet, when asked, “Have you ever apologized?” the answer is some version or other of “no.”  More often than not, the seeming humility associated with regret is actually no more than a clever disguise for deep-rooted pride.

Did you lie about someone?  Tell as many people as you can think of the truth of the matter — yes, even years later.

Did you swindle someone, leave a debt unpaid, or turn financial matters to your own gain?  Make the sacrifice and repay it now.

Nothing says, “I’m sorry” better than a sacrifice to right things as well as they may be righted.

I am not oblivious to the fact that not all wrongs can be righted.  I recall one seventeen-year-old boy with whom I worked at a drug rehab.  We had great rapport.  But still, I could tell he was building up to telling me something big for weeks.  Finally, I just put it out there:  “You clearly need to say something.  I’m listening.  I won’t judge or condemn you.  I’ll just listen.”  He sat silently, staring at his fumbling hands.  His face flushed and then contorted as he began to cry, for what I suspected had been the first time in a long time.  He went on to tell me that he and his younger half-brother had experimented sexually together a few years back.  As he was able, I asked him for specifics, because this was likely the one opportunity he would have to get it all out there — every awful thing he had done, that he believed about himself – and have someone still look him in the eye and love him.

This is essentially what I told him.

In the end, due to the nature of a past choice, the emotional choices of the offended or otherwise involved, a death – or a combination of these factors – remorse and restitution do not always result in reconciliation.  Still, regret has no place.  It changes nothing.  Much as I suggest in regard to worry, once you have done all that can be done (which is often more than you think) — you can do no more.  Accept the consequences as graciously as you can.  But choose not to live under the cloud.

Seek counseling.  Live differently going forward.  Love differently where you may.

But whatever you do, pull up the stakes of regret and move forward.

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