On Regret and Old Age. (Sunday Thoughts Link Up #46)


“Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

1 JOHN 1:9 

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Most of the people I’ve watched pass from middle to old age tend to fall into two camps:

  1. the ones who live for, or to, regret the past,
  2. and the ones that live in the present and look a little longingly to the future and the world to come.

I’d also add a third (which I foresee will be me): the ones who have a second coming-of-age, a bildunsroman part two if you will, who begin as the first type and finally round out to the second: missing, ruing, regretting, and then finally appreciating and anticipating.

There are certain pieces of the past I wish I could live again. I wish I could hit repeat on my son’s first breath off the ventilator, or his first word on a cold afternoon walk in early spring, or my twins’ first holding of hands or that time they made me pinky promise I would be their mom forever while we watched Charlotte’s Web on the lumpy couch in the living room.

And in equal measure I would like to re-do almost all of middle school and high school. Whisper into that fourteen-year-old girl’s ear, “Go, honey. Just go live a little and don’t worry about failing. Everybody else is still getting their footing too.”

I think the hardest spot to be in, as the years pass, is to get stuck on and in the past—endlessly regretting decisions and life’s turns or wishing for that one moment, turned golden and perfect in memory where everything seemed to fall into place. It leaves you unable to see the present or the future because you are forever turned inward and backward—a grub digging deeper in the dirt.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells them to look forward, to “strain” forward in fact. He of all people could have had reason to harbor some serious regret—the man who persecuted so many early Christians before becoming one himself. Imagine all the good he would have curtailed if he couldn’t get passed his whole “Saul” years. Or if he continually wished he could be that Saul again, the man with the power and the glory of the state.

This is exactly what happens when we endlessly ruminate over what was. We clip and neuter all the potential God has for us in the years we have left. John urges us to confess past mistakes and move on. God has already forgiven your past and your future and an excess of regret can make a martyr of you when He does not ask it or need it. He just wants your gratitude.

In a letter to his friend, Mary Willis Shelburne on June 5th, 1961, C.S. Lewis wrote:

We must beware of the Past, mustn’t we? I mean that any fixing of the mind on old evils beyond what is absolutely necessary for repenting our own sins and forgiving those of others is certainly useless and usually bad for us. Notice in Dante that the lost souls are entirely concerned with their past. Not so the saved. This is one of the dangers of being, like you and me, old. There’s so much past, now, isn’t there? And so little else. But we must try very hard not to keep on endlessly chewing the cud.

I would chew the cud until my teeth gave way if you let me. I would circle the past like dirty water in the drain until there was none of me left. The only recourse in the end is to stop thinking about me entirely. The happiest people, old and young alike, are the ones who spend most of their time looking out, at the world and the people in it, instead of into the dregs of their own teacups. It does no good to read and re-read our own fortunes when God has them all laid out neatly to be lived to the end.

Sunday Thoughts Link Up!

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