Plenty of people, especially near the end of life, claim they have no regrets. We ought to feel sorry for them.
To regret something we’ve done is to acknowledge a higher principle than we were able to live up to. Regret can strengthen our moral character: Never again will I do something like that. If we acknowledge our wrong and seek forgiveness, we can honor those we’ve hurt. Someone who can’t regret isn’t very human. Think of the judge who stiffens the sentence because the defendant shows no remorse.
Reflecting on our biggest regret can be a powerful exercise in spiritual growth, especially in Lent. It can help us to learn from our mistakes, to accept our failures, to know divine forgiveness and our own. Fresh regret can only be felt in its raw form. But as we live with the memory of things done and left undone, regret can soften into something good. As the poet David Whyte writes, “Sincere regret may, in fact, be a faculty for paying attention to the future, for sensing a new tide where we missed a previous one, for experiencing timelessness with a grandchild where we neglected a boy of our own. To regret fully is to appreciate how high the stakes are in even the average human life.”
My mentor of many years knew how to ply his regrets. When I shared my fresh, raw contrition, he would open his personal treasure chest of old and seasoned regrets. This one, he would sigh, taking it gently from the chest, is where I faced my pride and willfulness. And this one, he would say, is where I learned the hard way how fragile and precious are the people we’ve been given to love. I was amazed at how an older man could treat these stories of failure as precious emblems of grace. I could only see mine as scarlet letters.
If your regrets are still raw, it may be a time to seek someone’s forgiveness. It is always a time to know God’s total absolution.
If your regrets have had time to soften, perhaps, as a mentor for someone, you can open that personal treasure chest of yours.
Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo?
Question #17 “What are you willing to suffer for?” comes Palm Sunday April 2.