Regretting the past only leads to spiritual depression
Feelings of regret are not limited to the dying. Nor are they limited to the old. Most people have regrets now and then. Even Job had regrets. In fact, regrets come in all forms: regret over things not done or said; regret over things said and done; regrets over choices made; regrets over wasted talents and abilities; and so on. The list can be endless. The problem comes when we wallow in our regrets and let them suffocate us. Mother Angelica calls it having “Spiritual Hangovers.” There is nothing inherently wrong with having one or two regrets, what is wrong is when we let those regrets become obsessions.
We make choices every day. Some are major, some are minor. Will any be the source for regrets in the future? We make choices based upon a variety of factors. Will those decisions come back to us later in life as a regret? Did I study hard enough in school? Did I make the right career or vocational choice? Did I choose the right school? Did I choose the right spouse? Did I spend enough quality time with my children as they were rowing up?
Many people say, “If I had only known then what I know now.” This form of regret usually refers to past decisions made on the basis of what that person believed to be true at the time. The knowledge might have been gained from experience or from knowledge developed from science. Punishing yourself for not knowing what you could not possibly have known at the time is a wasted effort. Instead, concentrate on the fact that this knowledge is now available, not just for yourself, but also for others so that they do not make the same mistakes you feel you have made.
Every decision we make helps to define who we are and who we will become. Some decisions are irreversible. Some women, for example, regret having had an abortion and never have another. They have trouble forgiving themselves for having made that decision. One can learn from the regret and grow from it.
Regret makes us try to justify, to ourselves as well as others, what we have done or have not done. We endlessly explain, either to others or to ourselves, why we did what we did. We search for the reasons why we made such a stupid mistake. This kind of self-examination is not helpful. It can lead to depression. The regrets of past actions can color our present or future but only if we let them take over.
We all fail at something. Our failures do not have to define who we are. Instead we can look at why we failed, what were the decisions or actions we took that lead to the failure, in order not to repeat that sequence of events again.
We all succeed at something. Are we proud of those successes or do we discount them in order to focus on our failures again?
How do we handle regrets spiritually? One way is to pray backwards in time. We know that God is always in the now. Our past, present and future is all now to God. So we can place ourselves, imaginatively, in that situation again, and ask for God’s help and blessings for that moment. We can ask for the strength to make the best decision available to us in that time and place. It may not be a good decision, but it may be the best choice at that moment.
A healthy and spiritually valuable use of regrets is in the daily examination of conscience. How did my day go? Did I do the things I know I need to do? Did I neglect to do something I needed to do? Did I do a sloppy job or was I conscientious? How did I treat everyone I met this day? Was I gracious and loving or was I selfish and self-serving? Did I say something I now regret? Did I do something to them I now regret? Did I fail to do or say something I now regret? What about my relationship with God? How has that gone today? Did I make it a point to pray, or did I put it off all day. More important, do I regret not having prayed today? Or do I just shrug it off and say, I can always pray tomorrow.
When we use regrets as a means of self-discovery, rather than as a self-punishment, we find that we can grow from these experience and choices. We can come to realize that we are who we are as a result of each and every one of these choices, no matter how bad they seem to us today. Each choice has taught us something.
We need to become comfortable with ourselves, with who we are at this moment. We need to realize that the choices we regret may also be gifts in disguise. Our past is who we are today. Our questions should be “Am I the person God wants me to be or do I still need to work toward that goal? “