My biggest regret is spending so much time regretting.
Oh sure I can list oh so many cringeworthy moments. Mishaps with bodily functions. Bra straps showing. Green food in teeth. Colossal errors in people’s names, especially when in front of fifty people I’ve mixed up Mr. Chiang with Mr. Lee, or Ms. Gomez with Ms. Fuentes. All the times I didn’t listen – I thought he was joking when he said the price tag was showing on my hat that I went on to wear for months. All the times I was unintentionally cruel. Or cruel out of my own indecisiveness. All the times I was careless or lazy – why did I wreck that guy’s performance by not learning the words and harmony to the song we were singing together? All the times I laughed too loud and kept repeating the same lame remark. Or did I? Was I just carefree and fun? Oh, the rumination.
Rumination. Intrusive thoughts. Shrinks have words for it all. The agony, the sweat in the middle of the night, sharp like knives, remembering things I did and didn’t do in 1966, 1975, 2001, yesterday. Twisting, turning, beating myself up. Muttering “I’m so stupid” “I’m such a fucking idiot” “I can’t be alive, it’s too awful” – then worrying that I have been a bad mom because my kids seem to have picked up the self-flagellation. Did they hear my mantras of self-denigration? Is it genetic? Maybe it’s simply the human condition? The panting agony in the middle of the night of revisiting all the parenting errors, good intentions gone wrong, smug assumptions that my kids weren’t in danger of this or that. The second guessing of how I spent my time yesterday, or even this morning! The lost sleep.
The lost sleep. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m cringing all night, both at last year’s errors and out of fear of tomorrow’s errors. So them I’m more prone to making more errors. So then the easiest course is not to do anything. Just turn on the TV and watch beautiful people get themselves into messes (and then scripted out of those messes, so prettily, before the end-credits roll). Just don’t get up on stage. Just don’t submit the writing. Just don’t tell the joke at the party. Just don’t invite anyone over, because remember how you messed up the broccoli soup when your gourmet friend came over? And why did you mess it up? Because you are lazy and stupid and distracted and didn’t practice and aren’t careful, that’s why.
Why? Why the wasted time reliving all these moments? How many hours spent in introspection? The bromide from pop-psych articles is that we should learn from our mistakes. What would you do differently next time, dear? Oh hell, I don’t know. Especially around 3 a.m., I can’t unwind it all. Why can’t I forgive myself and just say “I did my best?” Ah, well, because it’s not my best, is it? I could listen more carefully, I could try harder, I could plan better, I could pause before speaking. Would I then be me? I am impatient and careless about detail, because I think many things don’t matter much. I am indecisive because I see both sides, many sides to most questions. But in the middle of the night, that is not good enough, nowhere near perfect. Doesn’t it all tend to come back to perfectionism?
Perfectionism. We ask of ourselves the perfection that comes from hindsight. We forget all the other competing issues of the moment. If I had concentrated on the broccoli soup, would I have ignored what my friend was saying? When I misstated that person’s name, wasn’t I concentrating on the conversation I was having with that person? When I agreed to sing harmony on the song, wasn’t I being a good sport and helpful friend, and didn’t rather suddenly I get in over my head? Perhaps the antidote to perfectionism is kindness.
Kindness. The shrink who helps me the most is one whose email signature contains the line, “Be Kind. Always.” She is always able to turn my torments into nice things about me. But even her signature haunts me when I fret about my failures of kindness. Or when people confuse me by saying that being nice isn’t always kind, or criticism my sweetness and tendency to pull punches. I’m the opposite of my shrink - I can turn anything into self criticism.
Self criticism. Selfishness. Self inspection. Narcissism. Isn’t that where we wind up? Me me me. I. First person singular. Pride. And that First Deadly Sin leads to a possibly bigger sin, the failure to be grateful. Worse still, the failure to live this short, limited life to the fullest. Too busy sleeping off the bout of insomnia. Too sleepy to practice. Too scared to act at all, because of fear of future bumbles, and concomitant future self criticism. Too immobilized on the couch holding the remote. So stuck looking inward and backward that I can’t move outward and forward. Which means I’ve missed out.
I’ve missed out but I’ve also let others down. Why couldn’t I believe that person when he said he wanted to talk to me? Why didn’t I go over when my friend wanted me for moral support, instead of trying to pack just the right wardrobe for a trip I’ve now forgotten? Why didn’t I see that my mother wanted to talk, even though I was hearing a bossy, critical tone to her voice? Was that just my projection onto her tone? To obey the pop-psychs, I’ll ask “what have I learned?” Listen. Don’t assume. Don’t spend so much time looking inward and backward that you miss what’s going on here and now. Ah, the narcissism of self-flagellation. The narcissism of regret. The irony – probably others have forgotten the incident that’s kept me awake for half a century, because their minds are occupied with cringing over their own perceived errors. Which brings me full circle.
Full circle. I regret that I regret.