I visited a place called Theatero Zanzini several thousand years ago, just outside San Francisco…part circus, part cabaret, part comedy club. A Master of Ceremonies/Ringmaster kept the chaos in order. I recognized him from television, maybe The Carson Show sometime after the infamous Ed Ames tomahawk era. I was impressed. He paused the levity momentarily for a serious soliloquy on life’s struggles. “So much of life is a struggle” he shared, “full of suffering and loss.” But you never fail until you stop trying. “So let them do their worst. Let them take away my possessions, my sacred honor, even my life. But there is always one thing they can never take from me…my regrets.”
He may not have been kidding. The web offers insights into the “Top 5 Regrets of the Dying,” “The top Five Regrets of the Living,” “5 Common (senior) Regrets,” “13 Regrets about Retirement,” “25 Biggest Regrets,” and last and far from least, “50 Regrets That Will Haunt You On Your Deathbed.” Something for everyone and every occasion.
Cornell University made its own contribution with The Legacy Project. The study collected information, or more precisely advice from over 1200 older Americans, harkening back to a time when tribal elders were revered for their experience rather than reviled for slow driving. Lead researcher Karl Pillemer refers to this cohort as life “experts,” and he published their observations in a book titled “30 Lessons for Living.” The chapter “Lessons for Living a Life without Regrets” offers 5 (of course) case study lessons: Always be honest, Say yes to opportunities, Travel more, Choose a mate with extreme care, and Say it now (before it’s too late).
Not bad advice, I can relate to at least a couple. But having lived long enough to make the requisite number of mistakes to claim my own expert status, I can’t say I regret a thing. Sure, there are things I would have done differently. My first marriage ended in divorce for multiple reasons, not the least of which because I was growing old at 29 and getting married was easier than breaking up (don’t do that). But prophecy is a lost art, and who’s to say the path not traveled would have proved more agreeable? Some lessons may be painful, but is learning to be regretted? As Nelson Mandela observed, “I never lose. I either win or I learn.” Might sound a bit trite if not coming from a man who served 27 years in prison for his beliefs. It’s a matter of choice.
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Me and Mart Twain, and at least one other elder expert who says… “Turn yourself from frittering away the day worrying about what comes next and let everything else that you love and enjoy move in.” Like worrying too much, regrets are a distracting waste of time, unless used as learning experiences which help us to choose wisely down the road.
Following graduation from a pre-law curriculum as an undergrad, I spent two weeks in law school (I don’t regret that either), and I found myself all dressed up with no place to go. From my pre-law perspective I thought studying literature a bit too frivolous, but ran out of more “practical” options my senior year. First course was 20th Century American Literature, first assignment was “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” Absolutely knocked my socks off. I loved it so much I was the only one of my contemporaries who wasn’t enthralled with the (excellent) movie, because it fell so short of the novel. So following my truncated law school experiment I ALMOST embarked on a writing career. Considered moving back to Urbana, Illinois with some modest savings and the intention to eclipse Ernest Hemingway.
I found the perfect opportunity to live rent free, a useful windfall for a bohemian with more pretensions than assets. A very inviting fixer-upper that had an even more inspiring ambiance than it had code violations. The owner offered it to me rent free in exchange for some sweat equity. I knew absolutely nothing about carpentry or plumbing, but I had once almost electrocuted myself cutting live wires thinking the power was off, so I had that learning experience going for me. Hell, assuming I survived I could write an adventure novel based on my elongated learning curve. How hard could it be? Too hard apparently, or maybe too intimidatingly real. Relieved of the time required to meet my most significant expense, I would have nothing to fear but fear itself. I would have to confront my lack of confidence, make mistakes, endure failure with no guarantee of success. I would have to write!
Not saying yes to opportunities you may remember, was on of the regret hit parade. I never made the commitment and if I had any regrets, that probably would have been one of them. But who knows how it would have turned out, for better or for worse? I went on to have a a rewarding career, a loving (second) marriage, and a life well lived by most reasonable standards. And so here I am today, essentially relieved of the time constraints of making a living, AND having once successfully installed a dimmer switch, I have nothing to fear but fear itself. I just may try my hand at writing. It’s never too late to lose your regrets.