-- from “My Way,” famously sung by Frank Sinatra
“Regrets? Don’t get me started.”
-- Mark Sherman
Ah, regrets. I assume we all have them, but who needs them? And unless you’re someone like Frank Sinatra, you probably wouldn’t say your regrets were “too few to mention.” If you really think about it, your list of regrets can be a long one, and if you think about it too much, one of the regrets you can add to your list is that you spent too much time thinking about your regrets!
When I look at a concept, I often like to consult the dictionary to make sure that my readers and I are on the same page. Let’s see. The first definition in my online dictionary (I’m just too lazy to consult the one I have on the book shelf) is “a sense of loss, disappointment, dissatisfaction, etc.” Well, I’m not sure I totally agree with that definition. So now I regret even looking at the dictionary because I thought I knew what regret meant, and now I’m wondering.
However you define it, though, and whether you are looking at regret, the noun, or regret, the verb, regrets are not good. Take the line “I regret to inform you.” That is never good news. For example, it often occurs in rejection letters. It’s never “I regret to inform you that you have been accepted by East Podunk University,” although in the case of East Podunk, a regret for an acceptance might be totally fitting. No, it’s “We had thousands of wonderful applicants, and we regret to inform you that, wonderful as you are, you were not quite wonderful enough for Brown University.”
Regrets are also expressed when your work is rejected, as when you send in a personal essay to a magazine, a piece on which you have labored for weeks, and you get back a form letter which says, “We regret to inform you that your work does not quite match our needs.” Regret? Really? Whether from colleges or magazines, these rejection letters were probably done as a mass mailing, so who is truly regretful that you or your work was not accepted?
You, that’s who.
And then there are the “regrets” you send when you decline an invitation. Actually, many invitations say, “Regrets only.” The assumption is that if you can’t go, you feel regretful about it, when in reality you’d as soon have root canal as go to this affair. Of course, you can’t say that, although admit it, haven’t you been tempted? Really, instead of writing, “I regret that I won’t be able to attend,” wouldn’t you sometimes prefer to write, “Happily, I’m not coming. I’d prefer root canal or a colonoscopy to hanging out with you and your friends.”?
Actually, since we know those form rejections are hardly regretful and that someone who says no to our invitation may not be at all sorry she won’t be there, the only regrets we can truly believe in are our own, and for many of us, these are more than enough. We can regret not having chosen a particular career, not having spent enough time with our families, not becoming fluent in a second language when we could have, not being familiar enough with Shakespeare, not having worked enough, not having played enough, what we said, what we didn’t say…the list is potentially endless.
But, fortunately, there are ways to limit our regrets. This was brought home to me by a friend who is a decade older than I am, a woman of many talents and achievements. She said she has realized that certain regrets make no sense to her.
“For example,” she said, “I realized that it was silly to regret not having become a figure skater. I had thought about it as a girl. But I tried ice skating once, and I was terrible at it. In fact, I fell and broke my ankle, and needed surgery for it. I was completely unskilled at ice skating.”
But these are the easy ones -- although every once in a while there’s a story of someone who kept falling when she ice skated, felt challenged, and decided she would learn to do it and well, and went on to be in the Olympics. Much more common, however, are instances where you do something well, and don’t stay with it, and then can wonder for the rest of your life what might have happened if you had.
Finally, the word “regret” has an important place in American history. Nathan Hale, a patriot during the American Revolution, reportedly said, just before he was executed, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” What a man! I would have said, “I only regret that I didn’t go to medical school like my father wanted me to. Who needs this?”