By Jen Pastiloff.
I’d been wanting to write a piece on regret, it’d been sitting in the back of my mind somewhere between the piece on our baselines of happiness and the piece on my second stepfather going to prison for murder (self defense!) so when my sometimes therapist said we are going for a life of no regrets here, Jen, remember? it seemed like just the right set of words to distract me into a Yea, yea right no regrets. Which reminds me.
Which reminds me. I’d like to write that piece right now so we no longer have to talk about having kids and if it’s the right time and how I should just start trying so that I live my regret free life with as relatively few regrets as possible. Because what if I wait until January like I want to, so I can still lead my Italy retreat, and I have a hard time conceiving? Will I be mad at myself that I didn’t start trying sooner? Will I regret it? I am done with such conversations for now so I will write a piece on the internalization of regret instead, the I’m sorries, the I wish I did it betters, the If I could do it over agains. Anything but this decision. I’ve just gone completely off my meds and quite frankly, I liked myself better on them. I’ve heard people say of their alcoholic spouses or parents, that as crappy as life was with them, they sometimes liked them better when they were drinking. (I’ve heard that. Not often. But I have. Maybe just in a movie.) I liked myself better on cymbalta. That 30 mg kept me affable enough, it stopped the train wreck inside my brain, the flatness of mornings, the circle walkings, the scribblings. I’d like to have any conversation but this one about babies since right now I am not on great terms with myself and I’d like to not have one more thing to regret so I think I shall write that piece now.
I know it’s not the thing to say in the yoga world, which is where I reside in many people’s minds, but I would be lying if I said I had no regrets. Telling my dad “I hate you” and then having him die a few hours later. I kind of regret that.
Have I made peace? Yes.
I also regret not writing things down. China? I was there? Really? Prove it. Pull out documents. Words. Poems. Fragments of words. Anything.
I visited silk factories? Those men selling crystal rock candy in all sorts of shapes and sizes on big sticks as they froze on their rusty bicycles, I smiled at them as I took their photos?
I have a box of pictures I look through every couple of months to remind myself of the places I have been, the people I have known.
If it weren’t for this box of photos, honestly, I am not so sure.
I watched the old men in Beijing practice tai-chi, their breath circling the air as if it was in tune with their chi. Wait, that was me? Breath that hovered or flowed, breath that faltered and fell to the ground. (I have photos of this, otherwise I might be making these memories up for the sake of this essay.)
Despite the photos, I still wonder if I am making things up. Perhaps I am. Perhaps we always are.
I sat on a bus while some other NYU kid boycotted going to wherever we were going that winter day because, as he said, we were “exploiting the people.”
I ate rice, nothing but white rice for weeks, because I was terrified of gaining any weight. I had no idea what was in any of the food and it didn’t seem to be worth the risk at the time. Trying something new? No way, I’d rather starve. So hungry, all I thought of was food and getting warm so I paid little attention to the Chinese monks we visited, the bridges I stood on, the shows I saw, the house boats of Suzhou. Thank God for pictures. Real life film photos too! (Film. Remember film?)
I regret not writing things down.
I had brunch with a friend last week who told me that her boyfriend has a tattoo that says “Write it Down.” I thought how if I got a tattoo, it would say that. That or my dad’s name. Maybe both. Write it Down Melvin. (Wreck It Ralph. Has that kind of ring to it.)
My other friend, the one who hooked me on this sometimes therapist, suggested that maybe I didn’t need to remember.
Maybe that too.
Or maybe I remember and don’t remember at the same time. We all do that to some degree, don’t we?
And then there’s this to consider: maybe I do remember all of it. Every single thing. Every word, every hurt, every pancake. Maybe it’s all up there, somewhere. In boxes or files, hiding under the shitload of unnecessary information I ingest daily via Facebook and the internet. Quivering in a corner, waiting to be resuscitated.
I’ve convinced myself that if I had written down more of my life then I could prove it. This happened. I was here. I existed.
Writing it down would make it factual, a thing in the world, measurable and unchangeable. There would be no revisionist history if I wrote more down.
Here, let me go check my records. Wait, let me research that in my stacks. Nope, didn’t happen. Wasn’t there. Didn’t exist. Not in the notes.
Back to the regrets: not finishing NYU? F*ck yes. (When I told my dean at the time, a man I worked for and who was more like a father to me (at least in my mind) than anything, that I was “taking a semester off”, he told me NOT to go to L.A. He was adamant that I would lose a brain cell for every year I was there. Been here 15 years now. Too many brain cells to count.)
Those few regrets are mine. I own them or they own me or something in the middle. When my brain is trying to rewire itself, when it’s scrambling to reconfigure itself after five years on selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, those regrets are hanging on my wall next to a photo of me standing at the Great Wall of China.
Those are the regrets I am willing to share right now. The deep dark ones stay with me until I am ready to send them out into the world.
For brevity’s sake let’s leave it at those, since they tie in to the others, since they tie into, perhaps, all regret. Maybe all regret is intertwined. Maybe when you unlock one piece of the regret puzzle, the rest slip away like they never existed. Or, they start to make sense. Here, this piece fits nicely in here and voila! the puzzle is finished finally. Let’s take a picture of it, all our hard work, all the years leaning over the dining room table putting together misshapen pieces. They finally fit. We finally understand.
Anyway, regret is complicated. It’s a puzzle in its own right.
All roads lead to China, right?
I still live a rich full life and am happy a good 87% of the time (give or take.)
I lied. I am probably happy more like 78% of the time (give or take.)
I don’t know. Who cares the percentage?
I am as happy as I can be most of the time. How’s that?
Which reminds me. I want to write piece on the baseline of our happiness. We can vary slightly from this line but mostly don’t we stay about as happy as our own baseline? The idea is frightening, if you ask me. To someone who deals with depression, it’s a terrifying idea to ponder.
It’s like the body. The body always knows what it wants. Where it wants to be. You can work out until you are blue in the face and count your calories, but eventually, your body comes back to its “happy place.”
Do I wish some things had been different? Sometimes.
A couple of those things I can. I can go back to school (and I may! I applied for a writing fellowship based on the advice my friend, the author Emily Rapp.) That’s a start.
I suppose I have no regrets if I think “just look at where I am now though. If I hadn’t done x, or y or said z, none of this would have happened.”
Do I always think that way? No.
I understand that philosophy and I agree with it. Mostly. But who knows?
Maybe I would have said I love you to my father before he died and the guilt I carried around with me like an extra limb would have found someone else to latch onto? Maybe I would’ve stayed at NYU and went on to get an MFA in Iowa or somewhere and maybe all the things I had written down would be books out in the world. Who knows?
Mostly I like to think of the things that have happened as having had happened so that I can be where I am now but I don’t know if that is the truth or rather something we invented so that we didn’t kill ourselves with the “what ifs.” Because the what-ifs can kill you.
You take what has happened and you make a life.
Still. Maybe it’s the neurotic Jew in me, maybe it’s the part of me that likes suffering.
The idea of regret is tricky, it holds you hostage in the past, it fills you up with more questions than can ever be answered in seven lifetimes. Regret is different than shame too. Regret is that thing in the back of your heart that feels like a lump, swollen and imaginary at the same time. Impossible to locate. Always there. Cancerous.
I wonder if I will fall a couple of notches down the rungs of the spiritual ladder by even having this conversation.
Truthfully, I don’t care. (How liberating it is to say that! Try it.)
I’d rather be human and filled with faults then a shit talking saint who pretends that bad things never happen and regret doesn’t exist.
Why make people feel they need to lie about them? Oh, no, I have no regrets, not a one. I am enlightened and then hiding under the bed, sniveling in shame at being so unlike everyone else and their regret-free lives.
To be clear: I don’t want to dwell in my regrets. That would be like taking a bath in my own shit every day. I do want to know, on a human, guttural level, if such a thing exists: a regret free life.
I want to know of other’s regrets. I want to know that it’s okay to have a couple or more than a couple, as long as you are moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other, living life in the best way you know how.
I suppose I am thinking of all this around Yom Kippur, a day when Jews atone, although that means little to me, having abandoned my Jewishness after my father passed. Most likely I am questioning these things as I think about bringing children into this world.
I am equal parts – wait, I should stop myself here – I am about 30% (give or take) spiritual teacher and 70% (give or take) neurotic writer. I do my best to have a foot in both worlds, but sometimes the writer, the one who digs and questions and overthinks, overtakes the other one.
Someone posted on my Facebook page, when I opened this dialogue, that if you have no regrets you haven’t lived long enough.
I found myself up late reading all the comments people posted about regret.
I regret getting lost on my way to Malibu beach with my younger brother who wanted to see it. He died in an accident years later. It’s a weird regret, but it’s really the only one I have.
Frequently I imagine going back in time and getting to my kid’s magic show on time, before he actually did the magic trick rather than just after. The kid no longer cares, but I re-do that day in my mind quite often.
Regret…after beating breast cancer (at the age of 43 with 3 kids at that time, one in elementary, one middle and one high school) I have such regrets not documenting my journey better, not taking more pictures with my bald head (I think I have one), not writing down what I went through, the ups, the downs, the nausea, the deep to the bone pain, the confusion, the sweet nurses, the doctors who scared me (with their superior attitudes), the doctors who didn’t, what my kids were going through, what my husband felt, the highs and the lows. I continued working, kept being the homeroom mom, the wife, the daughter who didn’t want her heartbroken and in denial parents to see how sick and tired I actually felt, and tried to keep things as normal as possible for everyone I Loved. Now 3 years later I look back, and think, WOW, it’s like it never happened (besides the fact that I never completed my reconstruction, and don’t have nipples!) I went through this extraordinary journey, (the worse thing to happen, and the best thing happen to me) I was superwoman who overcame the Kryptonite, I want to shout to the world, I SURVIVED! But short of lifting up my shirt and showing my deformed breasts, everyone, (but me) seems to have moved on and forgotten….Sorry, didn’t want mean to write a manifesto, not that I ever want to go through breast cancer again….but I guess I don’t want to ever forget either…..how weird is that?
I regret each time I screwed up, and then failed to learn from it. So many people harmed needlessly. I regret taking so long to embrace myself. I have never regretted loving anyone, even when it was one-sided.
Wow, Jennifer. Thanks for sharing. Never thought of the importance of writing down or speaking about our regrets. And after reading some of the ones shared here by many people I can relate to many of them.
Oh, Jennifer. What a can of worms. I can’t.
What a can of worms is right.
I saw this poster today on Facebook as I was writing this which said that the secret to happiness is having a bad memory. Maybe that’s why I never wrote things down? If I don’t write them down then they won’t have existed and I will have nothing to regret and I will be happy. Maybe I was trying to trick myself into happiness.
I know regret exists. Whether it got written down or not. The level of living inside of the regret however, varies, depending on your own can of worms. I don’t want to live with the worms. I just want to understand my regrets enough to write of them. To look someone else in the face and say I understand you, I understand your regretting not making it to Malibu that time with your brother, before he died in the accident.
Let’s go now. To Malibu. We can go together and throw roses into the ocean like we did when that stepfather of mine, (the one who went to prison) died. We can throw rose petals into the water and watch the waves take them away. We can say goodbye, having finally acknowledged their existence. We can get on surfboards and float out on our bellies. We can float out as far as we like.
We can scatter all the ashes of our regrets.
To say that regrets don’t exist is a lie. To say we aren’t able to let them go is another lie.
To say that somewhere in the middle is where most of us reside is the closest thing I have come to truth.