The Grace of Regret

“Life is difficult.” So begins M. Scott Peck’s 1987 book, “The Road Less Traveled.” A simple truth sets the stage. My favorite simple truth in my elderhood is, “Grace arrives.” I keep finding it happening.


When life is difficult, when we find ourselves in our most vulnerable moments, scared and frail and carrying too much emotional weight and blind as a bat, we can usually find our saving grace. Eventually. It’s one of those miracles that crops up even if we’re not paying close attention. Grace arrives.


The Very Thing that picks us up and points the way forward in spite of our fear has just been waiting for us to give up. Watching for us to stop being convinced that all is lost. That nothing is going to change. That life is never going to be what we thought it could be. That we were lost and would never be found.


Grace shows up when we least expect it. And it hardly ever turns up looking or sounding quite like we thought it would.


As I anticipate my 78th birthday around the bend, I’ve been realizing that the power of Regret has been just such a saving grace this past year. It has been a familiar and largely unwanted companion for decades, but now it’s become another new grace of elderhood that I’ve only recently recognized.


Most of us don’t welcome regret; we don’t really want it to show up; we may have pushed it away more than once. Regret is hard. Regret is ugly. Regret is more painful than most of us are willing to go through.


Maybe that’s why so many modern “sayings” about regret all tell us to regret nothing. Live life fully and without regret, they urge. It’s just a roadblock to the life you’re meant to have. It gets in the way of your happiness. It keeps you from becoming the “real you.”


But regret, when it’s avoided, just keeps coming back. Over and over. And it never feels better when we simply turn our backs on it. It gains power every time we pretend that we can avoid it. And it breaks the dam we’ve built against it every time.


These elder years are the ones that have an insistent work to them: the work of remembering. None of us avoids it. We remember the past and remember it again. And again. We find ourselves going back over the life we’ve put together. It’s a necessary work.


The same memories tend to pop up over and over, both the good ones and the bad ones. And sometimes new memories appear. And some of the new ones are the most painful ones. Ones we’ve cleverly sidestepped if they have been those that carry our guilt.


“Life review” becomes more palpable and more urgent when our time is growing shorter. The work of remembering is to remember it all. And our work is not yet done.


Sorrowful memories are perhaps the hardest ones that come home to be taken care of. To be nurtured.


The deaths of our closest and dearest one always lights the fire of regret. I know it from my own hardest losses. And I know it from so many people whom I’ve nurtured as a pastor over the years. Even those who have had the greatest conflicts and problems in the now-lost relationships face regret.


Regret always shows up. And a great disservice is done if we are told not to pay attention to those regrets. Because regrets are the doorway to the repentance and forgiveness that gives us the grace to become who we are still meant to be.


Many of the regrets turn out to be the same – or very similar. Lists of what wrongs we’ve done and what right things we failed to do. They arrive as unwanted guilt:

guilt for every “I love you” that we left unspoken.

guilt for every silence that should have been filled.

guilt for every meanness that should have been silent.

guilt for every time we chose to do what we wanted to do instead of what our loved one wanted to do.

guilt for every decision that broke a heart.

guilt for every time we took for granted.

guilt for every time we turned away or spoke in anger.

guilt for our infidelities and our determined selfishness.


Sometimes forgiveness shows up early as we allow ourselves the grace to say that we are imperfect clay that messes up all the time even when we’re trying our best to be good. We’re “only human.” It can be quite a relief to admit that. And it is good. Because being human does mean being imperfect.


But sometimes forgiveness needs to wait a bit because there really are some times for which we carry a real guilt. To simply say that we should never regret is to say that we have never been responsible for the larger hurts that we have brought on others – and on ourselves. And guilt has its place in teaching us that.


We need to sorrow over that for a time. Feel its pain. Give it its due. Weep deeply and long if we must. Go the distance. Make repairs if we can. And then – when the time is right, let it go. Receive the forgiveness that has been waiting to meet us.


To deny our regrets is to deny our humanity. It is to live in the pretense of having done nothing wrong.


It is in the sorrows of our guilt that we find the power of repentance.

And repentance is the handmaid of regrets that are laid to rest at last.

“Yes, I forgive myself. Yes, I am forgiven.”

Now I am free to become better than I have ever been.


It’s all a part of weaving together the fabric of our one distinctive life: imperfect but, finally, redeemable.


And when the work has been done: Gratitude shows up! And wow! We’ve never known gratitude like we find in forgiveness!


Here’s the wonder, though. Once the letting go was accomplished, I found that all the bad memories vanished. My overactive mind does not go there any more. The work has been done. The unexpected grace has washed them all away.


And now wonderful memories, long forgotten, have been flooding back. There is room for them now! And it’s changing the whole way I do life! And I laugh more!


And I’m very okay with that!