Regardless of whether your last breath is taken from you suddenly, or is whispered after a prolonged period of palliative care, chances are entwined in that breath, will be regrets of a life somewhat unfulfilled. The Oxford Dictionary defines regret as “feeling sad, repentant, or disappointed over something that one has done or failed to do.” The word itself most likely has its etymology from the Anglo-Saxon “gretan”—meaning to weep or lament. Morbid as it may be, I can’t seem to get the image of my father as he lay dying from a cancer that mercilessly consumed a once powerful man right before my eyes. Like many people who have watched a loved one die, I was left with an aching emptiness because not only was my father not able to express his regrets but I too, left so many things unsaid. It is from this place that I decided to draft my own list of regrets as they stand today.
1. What was the one that got away?
For some, it was a missed opportunity; for others, a lost love, but for me, it has been the futile attempt of a wasted life chasing happiness. I’m quick to forget that happiness contains a time bomb that creates a voracious desire for more. It’s human nature to adapt to any circumstance in which we find ourselves. Whatever I have relentlessly pursued and eventually acquired may have made me happy yesterday, but today leaves me a little less satiated. I would like to rewire my brain so that I remember that the antidote to my “got to have more mentality” always lies in gratitude. If I could learn to live in the moment and nurture the gratitude within me, I would no longer view the world as a series of “missed opportunities”, but rather as a vast night sky made a little brighter by the light shining from within my gratitude.
2. What did I too much of?
A huge part of my story is that I am a recovering addict, now 17 years clean and sober. What I “regret doing too much of” is numbing myself for so many years with drugs and alcohol. The regret comes not from numbing out the pain but from numbing out all the good that was around me at that time—What we addicts often forget is that it is impossible to selectively numb out certain feelings we are sitting with. In other words, my numbing behaviour just pushed me further into isolation and disconnection. In his Ted Talk entitled “The Power of Addiction and The Addiction of Power”, Gabor Mate suggests that in order to understand addiction, we need to approach the issue from a different perspective. He says that we needn’t ask ourselves “what is wrong with the addiction”, but rather “what is right about the addiction.” This reframing of the question allows us to interpret what the addict is getting from the “addiction” that (s)he doesn’t have naturally. Addicts get a release from pain, a sense of inner peace although temporary, or possibly a sense of control.
3. What I would do over?
Of all my “deathbed regrets”, this was by far the easiest one to identify. I’m blessed to be the father of an incredible boy who has grown up to become a self-assured and loving young man—and for that, I am thankful. The longing, or the regret, comes from not being completely present for him when he was younger. I would love to have those years back so that I could be less self-absorbed, less rigid, and more appreciative of what that fragile being was teaching me with his presence.
4. What do I wish I left behind—my legacy?
One of the things I fear most is that I’ll be remembered as the man who was “good at not doing something”. The strength of my character and the conviction of my actions are intricately woven into my decision not to use drugs or alcohol and my ability not to let the sexual abuse I experienced in childhood destroy the remainder of my life. Granted, these are both noble pursuits in and of themselves, but I want my legacy to be something I’ve built rather than something I’ve not done.
5. What advice, distilled into one sentence, would you leave your child(ren)?
What I want my son to take forward into his life is something that took me 47 years to figure out--Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s strength without wings.
My hope is that you too find a quiet place and a grounded mind so that you can write your own answers to these questions. Think of it as a kind of “To-Do-List” turned on its head—the ultimate chance for a do-over and an opportunity to live the life you are meant to live. In the immortal words of Bob Dylan: “People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent.”