January 26, 2020
How to overcome nagging regret
A popular American writer, aware that his death was imminent, and reflecting upon his life, wrote in his final essay, “I have no regrets.” Upon reading that, I wondered how any thinking person could make such a statement. Surely it was said in jest. Everyone has regrets since none of us is perfect. So it is inevitable that we will make our share of poor decisions.
After much pondering, I have changed my mind. I understand now how this writer could come to the end of his life with no regrets. There is only one explanation. He had given his regrets to God and in the warm sunshine of God’s forgiveness, his regrets had melted away. And that is what each of us must do – and can do – if we are to overcome the harassing regrets that have the power to ruin our lives.
Regret is real. It is a normal human emotion. All of us understand what Harriet Beecher Stowe was talking about when she said, “The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.” Is there anyone of us who has not stood beside an open grave and felt the pain of such regret? If you know you need to initiate the recovery of a broken relationship, do you not think of that every day? The longer you put off what you need to do, the more you allow your neglect to turn into an irritating regret.
The dictionary defines regret as “sorrow aroused by circumstances beyond one’s control or power to repair.” Such sorrow is a common human experience. You know what I mean. You uttered words you cannot recall, words that haunt you. You made mistakes you cannot change or fix. And the sorrow over deeds you cannot change can rob you of the joy available in the present hour.
The writer Fulton Oursler used the chilling picture of crucifixion to remind us how regret can ruin our lives: “Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves – regret for the past and fear of the future.” I much prefer the humor of Will Rogers who said with a smile, “Don’t let yesterday use up too much of today.”
Carl Sandburg, the famous American poet, wrote a poem about regret that I wish I had never read. Some say he wrote it about his wife, Lillian, but I don’t believe that. I think she would have left him and their goats had that been true. His poem, titled “MAG,” is so disturbing that I am reluctant to share it but I do so because it describes the destructive power of regret. Here it is:
I wish to God I’d never saw you, Mag.
I wish you had never quit your Job
And came along with me.
I wish we had never bought a License
And white dress
For you to get married in,
The day we ran off to the minister,
And told him we would love each other,
And take care of each other,
Always and always,
As long as the sun and rain last anywhere.
Yes, I’m wishing now you lived somewhere
Away from here and I was a bum
On the bumpers a thousand miles away
I wish the kids had never come,
And the rent, coal and clothes
To pay for, and the grocery man
Calling for cash, everyday cash,
For beans and prunes.
I wish to God I’d never saw you Mag,
I wish the kids had never come.
If Mag was a real person, I hope she never had such demeaning regret spewed upon her in spoken words or in writing. However, the more I ponder this poem, the more I think that Sandburg is simply describing the devastating effect of regret. It can destroy a person, a marriage, a family. Though Mag and her husband are probably fictitious persons, I think that here and there I have met Mag and her husband, people who were living wretched lives under the weight of crushing circumstances.
When I have counseled such bewildered couples, I have always told them this: “God is not interested in your past. He allowed His Son to die on the cross so that your mistakes, your sins, could be forgiven. If you will let Him, He will remove your past as far as the east is from the west and give you the grace to handle your present problems and hope for your future.”
No matter how overwhelming life may become, the best way to overcome nagging regrets is to give them to God and let the warm sunshine of His forgiveness melt them away. That solution has worked for me – and it continues to work. It is not complicated. It’s called grace. + + +