Getting older, we discover, is not for the faint of heart.
It’s not just our physical bodies that are betraying us with aches and pains; it’s the whole process of changing expectations for the future and looking back to a past we cannot change. Neither of these activities is pleasant or easy.
And we don’t have much choice in the matter. As we move from our forties into our fifties and beyond, the nights we spend staring at the ceiling in the dark become more frequent, and often more laden with regret.
Some of what we do is very human, very understandable, and completely useless. I’ve been known to awaken at three o’clock in the morning and agonize over the time I made fun of my sister and really hurt her feelings; I was twelve and she was eight. Not useful.
But just because it’s not useful doesn’t make it any less real.
There are other, deeper regrets that we harbor. Have we made the right choices for ourselves and our families? Should we have gone back to school and achieved more professionally? Was that a missed opportunity when we turned down that option to relocate or that marriage proposal? Is it our fault that our adult child doesn’t go to Mass anymore?
Is there forgiveness for the awful things we’ve done? Can we ever forgive ourselves?
It’s been said that the saddest words in the English language are “if only.” The truth is that most people do the best that they can at any given time with the information and tools they have currently at their disposal. It’s only later when we have more information, more tools, more time, that we second-guess ourselves… and, perhaps, feel that we didn’t do the right thing. In retrospect, our best is sometimes simply not good enough.
The good news in all of this (you were hoping there would be some, right?) is that we don’t have to be owned by the regrets we feel. Because while we’re busy looking back, God has a different perspective: God looks forward. There’s never any sense of “this is your last chance to get it right” with God. God lets us know, over and over again, that failure and mistakes happen and that today we can do it again—and do it better. And tomorrow he’ll offer the same opportunity. And the next day.
Where you see failure, God sees the future. It’s a completely different way of looking at our life; it’s turning it completely on its head. Last week on NPR I heard the inspiring story of a woman who, in her late sixties, went back to school—and not just any school, but the very young and very competitive world of a major art school. She persevered through her Master in Fine Arts and is now, in her eighties, an established and much-sought-after artist. I have to think that she learned about those three-o’clock-in-the-morning regrets firsthand and that she then turned them around to “what shall I do tomorrow?”
That’s what God is asking. He knows where you made mistakes. He knows where you took a difficult decision. He’s not interested in analyzing your past. He wants to know about tomorrow. You have only one thing to remember: you are not in this alone. God is with you, and loves you, and has great interest in your future—not your past. So you can go on feeling sorry for yourself about something you cannot change (sounds useful!) or you can say, “this day I will walk in the light of God. Today I will remember I am a child of God.”
God is mercy. God is love. God is forgiveness. That’s really all you have to know.
But the truth is that we all need reminders, and there’s a beautiful way to explore how God’s love can help you reclaim all the regrets of your lifetime: bestselling author Kathryn James Hermes, FSP, has written a new book, Reclaim Regret: How God Heals Life’s Disappointments, available this fall from Pauline Books & Media.