Regret: The Greatest Motivator

I often ask my high school students, that if they could give words of wisdom to younger people, what would they tell them?  Most have the same sentiment behind them, with messages of “be true to yourself” and “try your hardest,” but one that more frequently comes up, one that they seem to fundamentally misunderstand the concept behind, is the idea to “live with no regrets.”

Our youth culture seems to have adopted the idea that you should never regret anything you do, which is how my students misinterpret this statement.  The idea that this concept is truly ushering in is that instead, we should make the correct decisions in life, not ones that we will be sorry for in the future.  Regret can be the most horrible of feelings to live with, as it is connected to actions of the past, which are of course, unchangeable.  Thus, regret means we live the rest of our life wishing we had approached a situation differently, unable to change the outcome of something that happened so long ago.

In my own life, I have two or three major regrets when I was in college. Of them, the biggest, the one worth mentioning, is that I wish I had spent a semester abroad in another country.  I know many people who did, and they all had an amazingly memorable time.  My wife went to Mexico and lived with a host family, immersing herself in the Spanish-language culture.  My brother went to Belgium and worked with the world’s greatest cooks and chefs.  With great jealousy, I’ve listened to my former students discuss their experiences in France, Spain, and Germany, and about how they soaked up every bit of art, music, theater and literature of the place, while I can only reminisce about my days in my dormitory.

It is said that we more often regret the things that we don’t do rather than the things that we ultimately do.  To look back at lost opportunities is to live in a cycle of hellish present-day torture, one with seemingly no end to it.  To repeatedly hear the words in our mind, that we should have done x, y, and z when we had the chance, is to be filled with despair and helplessness at the missed situation that presented itself, the one we never took the chance to experience.

Regret is also not regulated to any group or individual; all are susceptible.  Even the apostle Peter experienced it while Christ was being arrested, tortured, and headed for crucifixion on the cross.  Jesus had previously mentioned to him that he would deny Christ three times, a suggestion at which Peter balked.  Yet, when the time came to admit knowing Him, Peter denied Christ on all three occasions: “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.  Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.’  And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Luke 22.61-2).  This failure would haunt him for the remainder of his life, that he had the chance to publicly acknowledge Christ to a group of people who were rejecting Him, and he blew it.

But how do we know for sure that it haunted him?  The answer lies in the actions that Peter put on display for the remainder of his life.

Although regret is a tremendously devastating feeling, it can also be one of the greatest motivators, pushing us to live differently.  It can fundamentally change our course of action for the rest of our life, as we know that we missed out on something and never want that feeling to come ever again.  For myself, I missed out on the chance to travel abroad and experience a different culture when I was in college.  However, even though I still feel that regret, I have learned to transform my feeling of regret into a motivator for my future actions.  As such, I now travel as much as I possibly can whenever I get the chance to.  Each summer is spent in a different country, and I’ve had the opportunity to be immersed in a number of different cultures, more than I would have had I never regretted that initial decision in college.  Similarly, Peter went from regretfully denying Christ three times to being one of the most outspoken apostles for Christ, the one on whom the church was built, the one who preached to enormous amounts of people following Christ’s death, regardless of the consequences.  Because Peter had denied knowing Him and felt that regret, he decided to transform that regret into action and never deny Him again, preaching His name whenever and wherever who could.

The philosopher and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau was quoted as saying, “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest.  To regret deeply is to live afresh.”  The issue is not having regrets; it’s what we do with those regrets that matter most.  The deeper the regret, the deeper the change in our lives there can be.  If we learn to dismiss our regrets or try to live without any regrets, we are not really living but are just learning to be numb to life, accepting an existence with no impact on others or ourselves.

So, don’t dismiss your regrets or try to fix them: embrace them.  Like pain, regret is a sign that something is wrong and in need of attention.  Addressing your regrets doesn’t mean they will go away.  In fact, it’s better if they don’t, because they will now be a daily reminder to live stronger and bolder as a result of them.  Then, learn to transform them into actions that steer your life on a different course, one that doesn’t get rid of your regrets but instead course corrects your life into amazing opportunities, thus being motivated to truly live.  Amen.

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Let It Go

I seem to have a problem getting rid of things.

In my basement garage, I have a storage cabinet that is reserved for just that.  Often times, I will get an appliance, tool, home décor item, and in the box will be an extra part that is included for some situation that won’t really ever apply to me.  For example, my refrigerator comes equipped with a drink dispenser on the front door with a water filtration system for that dispenser inside.  The fridge came with a plug for that filtration system in case I ever want to not use it.  Seeing that this plug is in some way invaluable to my life, I have stored it in my cabinet of requirement, you know, just in case.  At some point, I might want unfiltered water.

When I first got married, I brought quite a lot of baggage with me, literally.  I had several boxes of crucial belongings that were absolutely necessary to my life, things I couldn’t live without:  old calendars that contained dates significant to my life, tattered movie posters of films I’d never seen, stuffed animals I’d won at middle school carnivals.  My closets and storage rooms were filling up fast.  As luck would have it, I married someone the opposite of me, someone who doesn’t like to look back or reminisce.  So for her, if she hasn’t used it in the past year, out the door it goes.

Over the course of my marriage, my wife has helped me to slowly pry my fingers off my “treasures.”  She started with garage sales, something I went along with because at least my stuff was being traded for money.  However, she pulled a fast one on me, as when we finished setting up, she announced that everything now out of the house was not allowed back in the house.  Once the sale was over, we curbside alerted the neighbors to our stash, a concept I was mostly okay with because at least my stuff was still being put to good use.  However, once the garbage men came, it was goodbye to what I thought was invaluable.

And the funny thing is, I never ended up missing that stuff.  So, I grew braver and started to get rid of more, and I quickly found that it was easier than I thought.  In fact, there was a great deal of relief looking around at all the “found” empty space there now was.  I had been holding on to those needless items so much so that I was mired in the past, unable to move forward, and quickly running out of room for what the future held.

The same can be said for how we needlessly hold onto unpleasant memories and pain.  Like my possessions, when I have a stressful situation, I am someone who holds onto that moment, reliving it over and over in my head, with each replay being just as painful as that initial encounter.  Last week, I noted that it’s just me that’s holding onto those moments when they happen in my life.  At work, I was recently reprimanded for a small matter, and I had been running that moment through my head continually since.  Yet, when I ran into this person a few days later, it was clear that she had moved on and was no longer thinking about it.  I was the one stuck in that moment, not her, and I was the one that was continually punishing myself, not anyone else.  By holding onto it, I had made it a much bigger deal than it was.

Christian author C.S. Lewis said that, “Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars.  You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.”  When we run these painful experiences in our collective heads, we are neither moving past them nor healing.  If we want a wound to heal, we have to stop touching it.  Holding on to these needless items doesn’t help us to grow and prepare for the future: it keeps us mired in a stressful past.  We have to learn to let go and look ahead.  Proverbs 4.25-27 tells us to, “Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you.  Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways.  Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.”  Whereas looking away and back to the past causes our feet to stray, if we keep ourselves fixed on the future ahead, we stay on the path of goodness.  We then maintain a forward momentum of growth and movement, keeping us firmly on the path laid out for us by God.

So how can we let go and move forward?  First know that reasoning out and thinking about the pain or that moment isn’t healthy.  We tend to think about it repeatedly because our mind is trying to get control of a past situation, which is of course impossible.  The key is to give up trying to control what we can’t control.  Let God take over what we cannot.  One way to do so is through meditation and prayer, fixing your mind on things that are good, beneficial, and holy.  Spend time sitting quietly, allowing your mind to consider thoughts that build you up, releasing what it is that’s holding you down and keeping you in the past.  And this most likely won’t cure you in one sitting.  Since that pain is so visceral, your brain has rewired itself to focus on it.  So, repeated, scheduled prayer and meditation will recondition your mind towards the proper path that God has in store for you.  It will take some effort on your part, but it will help you become unstuck from the past.  With the right amount of time and dedication, you’ll be able to let go of those painful items that you’ve been pointlessly carrying around with you, and with your lightened load, you will be ready to receive the blessing that God is ready to give you.  Amen.

A Mouthful of Guilt and Shame

As the dentist checked each of my teeth meticulously, he uttered a brief technical term number of concern to his assistant.  I had been going to this dentist for many years, and for the last 43 years, I had proudly proclaimed that I never had a cavity, a fact of which my dentist was acutely aware.  So, much to my surprise, after he finished the exam he informed me that, in fact, I had a small cavity on the surface of a back tooth.

He braced himself and said to me, “Now, I know that this is probably a blow to your ego,” (it was), “but it’s only a small spot that can be easily removed.”  I was devastated, my perfect record shattered.  I reeled with questions about how this could happen, what did I do to deserve this, and where had I gone wrong.  He reassured me that it was next to nothing, but the problem with next to nothing when it comes to cavities is that it’s still a cavity.  You can’t be a little pregnant: you either are or you aren’t.

All week, I felt completely self-conscious about my mouth.  I could feel it slowly spreading to my other teeth.  I felt as if I needed to be brushing more, that my mouth was now diseased, and that more importantly, everyone could see that I had somehow been neglectful of my oral hygiene.  Make way!  Unclean!  I was mortified to be seen in public, as everyone would probably figure out that I had ruined myself and developed rot in my teeth, and I’d appropriately be labeled a leper.  

As far as ruined perfection goes, like the small blight on my perfect pearly whites, as Christians, even the smallest sin makes us imperfect sinners, where He is perfection incarnate.  Because of our sin, we cannot enter His presence.  Although this fact bears repeating, it is mostly a given in Christian circles.  The idea is pressed firmly into our souls.  Yet what we often overlook is Satan’s role in the proceedings after forgiveness occurs.

As a forgiven people, we frequently forget our forgiven status, as Satan will do whatever it takes to drive a wedge between us and God.  So, he reminds us of our sin by means of guilt and shame, having us relive our mistakes repeatedly in our minds.  Resultantly, our thoughts run in circles around our faults, errors in judgement, and poor choices as we become anxiety-ridden with the labels we place on ourselves as defined by our actions.  Satan makes these sins seem much bigger than they actually are in our own head, but we forget that since God has forgiven us of our sins, He also forgets them.  In Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, he writes to his audience regarding God’s opinion towards our sinful actions: “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (8:12).  If we are remembering our forgiven sin and feeling shame, those feelings are not from God, as they reject the forgiven aspect of our actions, thus denying His nature and separating us from Him.  If we focus on being forgiven, we are grateful and give thanks and praise; if we focus on the guilt, we are embarrassed and want to run and hide.  So to keep our focus on Him, we must remember this fact:  our sins and mistakes are not as big or as noticeable as we think they are.

In her TED Talk entitled “Don’t Regret Regret,” American author and journalist Kathy Schulz talks about a tattoo she has on her shoulder that she lamented from the moment she got it.  After talking about how horrible it was for the majority of the talk, she finally reveals it to the audience, as they all realize that it isn’t that bad of a tattoo.  In her reveal, she helps us realize that often times our mistakes in life are not as ugly or as big as we make them out to be to ourselves.  Similarly, when I finally went to get my cavity filled, it was on the surface so much so that I didn’t even require any anesthesia.

Putting an optimistic spin on the way we view our mistakes, Schulz summarizes with the idea that our mistakes should not “remind us that we did badly; (but should) remind us that we can do better.”  If we can view our own forgiven sin in that light, we prevent Satan from haunting us with the specter of our past selves, and we can instead see the perfect image of our future self that will be made complete in His glory.  For that reason alone, we should not allow guilt and shame to control us, but we should rejoice in that we are free from the shackles of self-imposed disgrace.  Sometimes a small fixed cavity is nothing more than that.  Amen.