Regrettably Yours

I’m reading Daniel Pink’s latest book, The Power of Regret. I wasn’t particularly interested in regret as a topic, but I was very impressed with the quality of the research in Pink’s previous book (When), and so far, he’s delivering the same readable, interesting, well supported treatment of his topic as he did last time.

His premise seems to be (I’m not done with the book), that though we pay lip service to “No regrets!” bumper stickers, or “There’s no point looking back,” philosophies, in fact, our regrets teach us a lot and help us improve our aim going forward.

My initial reaction to that conclusion was, “Ya think? Sadder and wiser? Live and learn? Of course we learn from our mistakes… or we should.”

Then I taught a little webinar on how to write a romance. As I was developing the writing exercises and figuring out which scenes I wanted the class to focus on, I realized that regret is often the 85% of the character iceberg hanging below the surface of the plot. Valentine Windham regrets practicing the piano so obsessively that he wrecks his hands. Darius Lindsey regrets so much. Hamish MacHugh regrets a terrible moment on the battlefield. Lydia Loveless regrets being such a headstrong girl.

The characters make wrong turns, and their attempts to cope with the fallout can take years. Hmmm.

Then I bethought of myself of a certain adolescent Grace Burrowes. I was headed for a career as a professional musician (in my own mind), and practicing up a storm on the piano. I also set a goal to become competent on one instrument in each family. I asked my parents for a trumpet for Christmas, and they came through. Finding time to learn the instrument, though, eluded me.

A friend wanted to join band, and asked to use my trumpet to get started. I wasn’t playing it, so I said sure. At the end of the school year, I still hadn’t lined up lessons for myself, hadn’t done any reading, hadn’t lifted a finger to tackle the job of learning the trumpet, but I asked for the instrument back.

The friend’s family had been unfathomably kind and generous to me. They kept my horse on their farm, which is the only way I could have had a horse. They kept me weekends and summers for much of my youth. All they ever asked of me was the loan of that dratted trumpet, and I was a dog in the manger about it.

I am so ashamed of my greedy, selfish, mean little self… I have apologized for my behavior, but such is my disgust with myself that my personal policy on lending since then has been, “Whatever you lend, don’t expect to have it back.” Whether that’s money, a pair of riding gloves, a book… If I lend it, it’s gone, possibly for good. And I generally will lend anything I don’t actually need.

This is an example of a regret that taught me a lesson. I committed the error fifty years ago, but I still feel the sting of my stingy actions. I had my reasons, but they were the weak reasons of a character dwelling in the small-minded, defensive posture of chapter one. Phooey on that. I want to dwell in the pages closer to the happily ever after.

Has regret taught you any lessons? I’ll put two commenters on the ARC list for A Spinster by the Sea!


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22 comments on “Regrettably Yours

  1. I have regrets about how I treated my maternal grandmother the year before she died. I was in grad school, we had just bought a house, my kids were young and I was BUSY with a capital “B”.

    She would call and I could only chat for a few minutes. She started having health issues in August and by the time she died of renal cancer at the age of almost 96 the following February, I had not been a regular caller as I had been. Mom told me she knew I was busy but missed our chats. I would do anything to have those few months back. We were with her the day before she died and I am so happy I got to see her that last time. I told her I loved her and that means a lot. And I learned to tell those I love that I love them regularly. I tell my 94 year old Dad I love him every time we speak.

    Now I’m crying!

  2. Huh. I regret not starting to work in earnest in becoming the person I want to be until in my 50s. I regret not learning to say No to others so I can say Yes to the important things until now. Wisdom at a younger age would have been so valuable if the younger us had the wherewithal to hear it, wouldn’t it?? Therein lies the rub, however.

  3. Regrets? On the one hand, I regret not asserting myself when I was a (not so young) adult. At the age of 26 I was still very much under my parents’ thumbs, living in their house, being chided for staying out past their curfew of 10:00 or so, even though I’d graduated with my BA, was gainfully employed, had a few lovely friends, and a new boyfriend. OTOH, everything in my past, good or bad, can be looked at as leading up to my present, and, honestly, I wouldn’t change a thing if the outcome would be even slightly different. So looking backward is sometimes, but not always, in my opinion, productive. If it helps us to change things about ourselves that we are unhappy or ashamed about, then, by all means, let us marinate ourselves in our regrets. However, if the end result worked out for everyone concerned, why look back? Although, I must say that I am a much more assertive person now than I was back then. How much of that is rebelling against my upbringing? How much of that is simply maturing? How much is gaining confidence in myself and my own opinions? Who can tell?

  4. Sometimes I think parenting can feel like one long string of regrets. In a situation where you are raising kids in a non-extended family, it is a set up for feelings of inadequacy and regrets. The more folks positively involved in supporting and loving kids the better, studies verify that 3 + adults as caregivers are ideal. So I try to be generous with myself when I regret not having the time / patience / skill / etc and having a negative reaction. Trying to verbalize the lesson and apologize to my kids when necessary is its own learning experience and valuable, but I wish I knew more when they were little and I wish I could’ve done better listening in the tween years in particular. Not that the teen years are simple right now, but I think my listening has improved, so there has been some positive impact of the regret.

    I once threw a tantrum in public to try to get my way because I had just read an article about women not making a scene so they don’t bulldoze their way to getting what they want (not about protesting injustice, negative socialization that reinforces a harmful system, or anything productive, just getting your way). I ruined some poor folks day and felt like the jerk I had acted like almost immediately (and I didn’t get my way) and I feel ashamed every time I think about it. Also, I kind of laugh at myself for buying into bad behavior ends justify the means in the name of equality, esp since the situation had nothing to do with being treated poorly, I just wanted what amounted to special treatment. It did help me prioritize consciously trying to choose who I want to be and what behavior is consistent with that, so it was valuable as well as mortifying.

    • Parenting… we could ring the changes on that one FOREVER. My parents seem to have this bulletproof attitude of, “Well, you made it to eighteen without a criminal record, so that means I was parent of the year, right?” Maybe seven kids, different times… but I think of everything I did wrong (there was lots) as a parent, and I know it’s my kid who deserves the medal.
      And I will be the first to agree with you: The nuclear family is a recipe for destitution and poor mental health. Some people who are very lucky and determined can make it work, but I think the species as a whole did better when every kid had a village.

  5. Oh, yes. So many but there are three in particular that I regret bitterly and think of often and still cry over, forty years later. One was something I didn’t do (hardened my heart), one was something I did (I listened to the wrong person), and the third was that I put my own desires before what would have been the right thing to do. I still live with those choices every day.

    • Isn’t it amazing how LONG regrets can last? I probably did a lot of stuff right when I was teenager, offered a kind word here, went of my way there, but that stinkin’ trumpet is still blaring in my head.

  6. Oh my, this is a biggie!, I have so many regrets. One that caused me to change my behavior, or at least try? Two topics come to mind and one is very much similar to yours Grace. I was very attached to “things” for much of my life. They represented relationships to me I think (an area my family does not excel in this area). When my father would actually pick something out and buy it for me, I was THRILLED and counted it as proof of caring… not so true I think. When my mother would buy me an imitation version of some hot toy, I overreacted to that (proof of being low value?). Some of the things I desperately wanted and got I still have.

    Now as a grown up I have discovered that I stunted my relationship building skills with that wrong headed thinking. I have worked hard to be a better friend and empathetic person and I feel the zap of my shortcomings on a regular basis. On the upside I have also discovered the joy of giving stuff to people who want it. So I have given away some very valuable things and some everyday things and anything else someone admires. I learned that it is a tradition to give anything to it’s admirer. I love that and have enjoyed to wonderful feeling I get seeing someone’s happiness. Such an improvement and so much more fun.

  7. So many regrets.
    I have a BIG regret, though. What I learned was that just because someone can make you laugh does not mean they have a sense of humor.

  8. I really could empathize with you on this story, Grace. I most regret how mean and selfish I was to my younger sister. We had to share a bedroom and I didn’t want her to TOUCH my things, but…I would sneak and use things I wanted to use of hers. I still feel bad when I think how small-minded and mean I was to her way back when.

    • And I hope, when you bring this up, she looks at you like, “What are you talking about?” Or that she at least takes your apology to heart and lets it go. You were kid, it was a long time ago.

  9. I have been on a forgiveness path and so I have forgiven myself of my regrets. I found them when I would cringe at a memory. I would then think though, like you did, why I did what I did. What was it that I didn’t know at the time that I know now. I gave that younger me a hug and promised myself to do better from now on.

    I have a reverse regret that has saved my sanity. My sister died, accidentally, when she was 23 and I was 24. She was my only sibling and we were very close. It took me a couple of years before I found some peace with the accidental death and even longer until I realized my sister and I were in contact with each other. She lived in upstate New York and I lived in California. We were young and had very little money but every other week one would call the other. That meant we each only had to pay for one phone call a month each. She died on a Thursday and Saturday would have been our next call. So I didn’t have the regret others in my family had who hadn’t kept close contact. I miss her to this day and it’s been over 40 years, but I’ve no regrets about not staying close.

    • What a wonderful perspective you add to the discussion: We blow it sometimes, and spend fifty years kicking ourselves for short-sightedness, laziness and so forth, BUT we also get it right. We stand up, we show up, we mom up. Great point!

  10. When I was around 18 and had my first serious crush on a guy, my mom told me: “I wish you could learn from my experience without my experience.”
    I couldn’t of course. So I kept on doing my own mistakes, some i deeply regret and some I have learned from. My dad was very oldfashioned and called me a slut because I wanted to visit my boyfriend when I was 19, so in my vindictive subconscious I thought: “Oh yeah? Lets’ just see about that..” And then commenced to have as many stupid onenightstands and short relationships with the worst guys I could dig up as possible. Until my body sort of just gave up and I had to spend a long time in therapy to sort things out. My dad of course gave completely up on me.
    So yeah, I regret being a silly girl who took the hard road but I am not sure that I would have fared a lot better if I had not rebelled in some way. I regret treating myself so badly though, for so long.
    Perhaps it is selfish not to regret dealing my dad the additional pain of seeing his daughter deliver on his slutshaming but there you go, I don’t actually feel very bad about that. As a parent now, though, I hope I will be better at talking to my children when they reach that age. As my husband once said to the kids, when we talked about all the “stupid” things to try when you’re young: “Just ask your mother, she tried it.”

    • I do wonder if your father regretted that unspeakable cruelty to you. I hope so, but if he’s like a lot of guys of that generation, they are just so fragile that at a conscious level, it’s all about the world disappointing them, never conversely. You learned from it, and unlike a certain author, your wrong-headed forays into independence did not result in single parenthood…