Making Peace with the Past: Entering the Post-Regret Years

By the time I hit midlife, I was already well over positive thinking. By then, having gone through one life-threatening disease, a couple of down-sizings and the deaths of several family members, I no longer believed that it was positive affirmations, alone, that would guarantee me the experience of fulfillment for which I yearned.

Instead, I turned like a night flower to those philosophies and belief systems that included the darker tonalities of life. From Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) to Christ (on the cross) and the yin part of yin/yang: I was right there. In fact, I have spent much of the last 15 years or so teaching, preaching and believing that it is in the shadows where the serious work of psycho-spiritual growth transpires.

This willingness to not only embrace but relish the darker notes of introspection may well explain how a book like Against Happiness by Eric G. Wilson founds its way into my personal library. Wilson writes: What if existence is "an endless dance of limping dogs and lifting crocuses, starlings that are spangled and frustrated worms...Sadness reconciles us to realities. It throws us into the flow of life." For years, I resonated completely.

But recently, after decades of introspection, atoning and making amends, I'm rethinking that my midlife conversion to the shadow side of life was something of an over-correction. Of course, there is value in facing our own as well as the world's complexity, uncertainty and sorrows. But lately, I can't help but recall author Connie Goldman's illuminating insight, that we have the opportunity as we age to not only grow old, but to grow whole. How can we achieve this embrace of the integrity of our lives unless we are willing to face both shadows and light?

Many of us have been touched by the Serenity Prayer, written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and beloved by 12-Steppers. The prayer goes like this. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference." As critical as it is to change the things we can, it is important to note that Niebuhr's illuminating prayer attends first to the primacy of recognizing those regrets, disappointments and failings that can not be rectified no matter how hard we try.

There are shadows that descend on every life that cannot be remedied, only lived with: regrets like having been born into a dysfunctional family or living with choices that cannot be unmade. Regrets over what others for whom we care are suffering or choosing, over which we have no control. Finding yourself re-running choices, thinking about how you could have done things better/more/differently, fretting that it is too late to undo the past? Niebuhr's prayer reminds us not to confuse healthy introspection and rectification of rectifiable wrongs with the notion that value, growth and meaning can only be found in the shadows.

Author Joan D. Chittister brings added dimension to this point of view in her illuminating book The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully. She describes the regret many of us experience increasingly as we age as a sand trap of the soul, which "comes upon us one day dressed up like wisdom, looking profound and serious, sensible and responsible." But this, Joan points out, is in reality a temptation and a misuse of the aging process, sapping our valuable energy by turning our attention to fantasy centering on what could have been. "Regret claims to be insight. But how can it be spiritual insight to deny the good of what has been for the sake of what was not?"

In order to get on with our lives, we have to confront the discomforting truth that we may never know why we made the choices we did; why we got the unlucky family or set of circumstances. And even more so, that no amount of introspection may provide us with the means to rectify it all.

At this point, you stop living your life by looking primarily in the rear-view mirror, and you point your nose back into the heat of life.

In the present moment, you find it is serious and constructive enough to ponder the mystery of the stars and planets, the birth of a child, the love radiating from the eyes of the dog. You become, in fact, not only a person who takes his or her spiritual and psychological growth seriously, but you become a mystic.