Can You Live a Life With No Regrets?
Last weekend I was at an open-water swim race in Michigan and met a woman who was 73 and was swimming in her first open-water event. I was impressed with her willingness to embrace a new, somewhat intimidating experience. She was a little nervous but excited to take on a new challenge. She was seventy-three and living her life to the fullest, an attitude I deeply admire. It’s often the things we don’t do that we regret.
I’ve heard more than a few people flippantly say, “I have no regrets,” but I’m skeptical. Is it possible to live a long life with no regrets? To admit you have regrets doesn’t mean you don’t like where you are in life. It’s possible to be in a good place, happy with who you are, where you are, and who you’re with, but to still look back and wish you’d done some things differently. If people were completely honest, I suspect most would have at least a few regrets in life, ranging from small ones to significant life choices.
One of the minor regrets of my youth was not asking the boy I had a mad crush on to attend the Sadie Hawkins dance in high school. I was convinced he was way out of my league. He was good-looking, athletic, and popular, so I assumed he would have a line of girls clambering to take him to the dance. Instead, I asked a friend, so I wouldn’t have to face possible rejection. I’m sure you can guess the rest of the story. My crush showed up alone! He asked me to dance, and when I questioned why he was alone, he said no one invited him. Almost fifty years later, I still think about that. My regrets are not about the boy or the dance but the lack of confidence to ask him. Almost everyone can look back on their young lives and think of things they should have said or done or maybe something they wish they had NOT said or done.
Many surveys reveal the most common regret people have at the end of their life is spending too much time at work and not enough time focused on friends and family. Although I can understand that regret on an intellectual level, I suspect many women in the Baby Boomer generation did the opposite. Many of us either gave up or molded our careers around what was best for our families.
I hate to use the word regret concerning time devoted to my kids. It’s more of a feeling of being left on the dock for twenty years and then paddling furiously, trying to catch up. It was time well spent, yet I sometimes wonder what I could have accomplished if I’d chosen a different path.
Strangely enough, I don’t regret marrying my first husband even though it ended in a heartbreaking divorce. We had some great years together, fabulous experiences I would never want to erase from my history. More importantly, we created two lives together. Those children, which led to grandchildren, were worth all the pain. In hindsight, regrets hovering around my first marriage center more on not knowing how to make the marriage work and not seeking outside resources to help us survive the inevitable bumps that occur in almost every relationship. More than anything, I hate that our marriage failure meant a more difficult life for our children. My second husband understands that my regrets about my first marriage in no way negate my happiness in our relationship.
There are so many “what ifs” in life that we’ll never know the answer. What if I’d chosen a different career path, moved to a foreign country, or married another person? There are forks in the road for us when one decision completely changes our lives. That’s not to say you can’t alter the choices at a later date. People change careers, get divorced, and move to new locations all the time, but those life detours become more complicated as you age. They also often involve other people’s lives as you become entrenched in their lives and have more shared responsibilities with partners, children, and financial commitments.
After I finished my Master’s degree, my advisor asked me to continue with my doctorate and work on a research project with him. I declined because I felt it would be too stressful for my young children. At least that’s the excuse I gave others, and even myself, but now I understand it was self-doubt. Who did I think I was, someone who barely skated through high school to even toy with the idea of getting a doctorate?
I have always regretted not continuing my education and obtaining that treasured Ph.D. after my name. Is it too late? I like to say you’re never too old, and it’s never too late, but there’s no denying the years are becoming more precious. As the years fly by, I’m choosing how to spend my time with more deliberate intent. Or are those just more excuses?
Lucille Ball once said, “I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.” Her sentiment is one I echo. Why didn’t I have the nerve to join the Peace Corps or backpack around Europe after college? The world seemed vast and scary when I was twenty-one, and I scurried back to my familiar nest, diploma in hand. One regret that has haunted me was not grasping the opportunity to spend the summer in Australia with a friend when I was in college. A free summer living in Australia, and I said no?! Like most of my regrets, I suspect my poor decisions were rooted in fear of failure, fear of the unknown, and fear of rejection.
Do you look back and wish you’d traveled more or taken a chance to make your living at something you loved but then got talked into doing something more practical? Did you give up a dream to choose a path that made your parents or your partner happy but left you asking, “Is that all there is?”
I’ve often asked myself, “What would you do if you were guaranteed you would not fail?” It almost scares me when I think about the possibilities. At sixty-five, the reality is that some doors have closed. Some avenues are no longer an option.
The closing of some doors can be a bitter pill to swallow unless you focus on all the possibilities that still exist. There may be some physical and financial barriers, but many times what stops us is our mental barriers. Let yourself dream about possibilities, and then make a list. Some may call this a bucket list or, framed more positively, a life goals list. It’s a little late to ask my high school crush to the dance, but maybe it’s not too late to achieve a few other things on my list.
I’ve had a few regrets, but I won’t waste any more time looking back. Forward is the only direction we’re headed. It’s a reality that our time on earth is limited, so live your life with intent. At the end of life, I hope there will be more thoughts of accomplishment and contentment than regret. As John Greenleaf Whittier said, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.”
After the race, I talked to my new friend. She had won her age group (she was the only one in it) and had loved the experience. I suspect I’ll see her at future swim events! I have a feeling she is one of those people who will leave life with few regrets.