Regrets - and how to deal with them
Colin Sedgwick suggests a couple of things not to do, alongside some we should
The legendary French singer Edith Piaf famously declared, in perhaps her best known song, “Je ne regrette rien” - I regret nothing.
Well, I reckon you’d need to be a pretty confident person - you might even say a pretty arrogant person - to make such a claim. I know I couldn’t. It’s like claiming to have lived a perfect life.
Most of us probably feel more like King Saul of Israel when he reflected pathetically on his love-hate relationship with the young upstart David. He has been trying to hound David to death, only for his efforts to be met with - mercy! This undeserved kindness pierces his heart, so... “I have sinned...Surely I have acted like a fool and erred greatly” (1 Samuel 26:2). He bitterly regrets what he has done.
As you read this, perhaps you find yourself thinking of your own regrets. They probably spring from two main sources - either sins you have committed or mistakes you have made. These may be large or small - a terrible crime, or a petty oversight. They may be truly life-changing or relatively trivial. But the very fact that you remember them tells its own story: we all have consciences, and when we go against them it leaves its mark deep in our souls.
The big question that arises is simple: What should I do about those “if onlys”, those “I wishes”, in my life? Well, I’m no psychologist or qualified counsellor, but I suspect there’s a couple of things we shouldn’t do.
First, don’t try and forget all about them, to bury them in the depths of the past. That’s futile and self-destructive. “Be sure your sins will find you out” goes the saying. And it’s true. That nagging, gnarling feeling will always be there, destroying your peace of mind and your ease with yourself.
But equally, second, don’t allow them to dominate your life. As a pastor, I have known people who acted foolishly or wrongly many years ago and simply will not let go of the folly they have been guilty of. All credit to them for not letting themselves off too easily. But the fact is that this approach can be just as destructive as the first.
No. The thing to do with our regrets is to face up to them as frankly and openly as possible, to make a clean breast of them, and then, with God’s help, to move on. This, in essence, is what the Bible means by that great word “repent”. And the good news is that God loves to forgive those who repent, and to give them a new start; no-one has to live with that crushing burden.
In some cases it may be possible to put right what we did. At the simplest level a word of apology to someone may be enough for that.
But suppose the person we have treated badly is no longer around? - suppose they have disappeared completely from our lives? With the best will in the world there really is nothing we can do.
The answer is simple: lay it all before God, trusting in his understanding, and ask him for help in benefitting from the memory. If we have the honesty and humility to feed bitter experiences into the full perspective of our lives, we can become better, stronger people. No, the deeds of the past can’t be undone, but they can be built on; wonderfully, negatives can be transformed into positives.
Here’s a brief afterthought... I’ve said that regrets come in many shapes and sizes. But I suspect that most of them have to do with our relationships with other people. That’s certainly what I find as I look into my own life.
Yes, certainly there are regrets about under-achievement, or big disappointments. After all, I never did get to play centre-half for Crystal Palace, or bat number four for England... More seriously, could I have done better academically or in terms of my work?
But the really pressing “I wishes” are far more personal. They’re really quite painfully simple. I wish I had been... a better son to my parents... a better brother to my siblings... a better husband to my wife... a better father to my children... a better friend to my friends (not to mention my enemies). And so I could go on...
I know someone who has had significant success in his working life: well respected in his field, an author of several books. But then his marriage fell apart. And he said to me “I would gladly give it all up to have that back again.”
Relationships - that’s the crucial thing. Focus above all on them! Oh to be able to look at our relationships and say with Edith Piaf “Non, je ne regrette rien”!
Picture: Oscar Keys/Unsplash
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister, with many years’ experience in the ministry.
He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com