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When we are children, our lives are most often caught up in the moment as we cannot grasp time and its meaning. The best example that comes to mind is of our middle grandson who would be aware we were traveling to visit him soon, but instead of the number of days until we would be there, he would ask his parents “how many night nights until Gram and Gramp come.” Bedtime routines he could fathom but days were not quite in his sense as yet. It was a dear memory of him as we look back in time to the handsome young man who is now 25 years old.
As we each age we gain a clearer concept of now, past, and future, but until we are truly older most of our time is still in the present and looking to the future that stretches out before. We get caught up in all the things we hope to do and be when “we grow up” and we don’t often look over our shoulder in the past or spend much time thinking about any regrets we may have. We are anticipating all the adventures ahead in the future and busy living life in the now without a keen awareness of how it is keeping a steady pace forward when we are looking elsewhere.
But as each decade passes, we begin to recognize the future is racing toward us and see some of the things we may wish we had done differently along the way. Some of those were when we simply made one choice over another such as a career path or a college choice and might now recognize we could have thought that through a bit more. Some of them are more bitter choices of mistakes and failures that we could no longer refute as a result of our poor choices. But they could yield to grace and forgiveness if we would offer them to God even later than they occurred and allow that regret to be healed.
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When we reach the last quarter of our life, the past stretches farther than the future and it can be easy to get stuck in regrets. We may think it is wisdom and now we see more accurately our responsibility of those things that hurt others and us along the way. Even though that may well be true, if we stay stuck there it can be a downward slide into depression.
“It nibbles around the edges of the mind, and we feel the weariness that comes with it. The years have slipped by without our realizing it. And now it is too late to make the changes regret demands. Too late to take the trip I always dreamed of, too late to get another job, too late to move to the cabin in the woods, too late to go to the big city where everything is surely bigger, brighter, better. Too late to begin again, or to do it better this time. Worst of all, regret demands to know why I did what I did in the first place. And I don’t know.”Joan Chittister in The Gift of Years
If we stay there, regret will rob us of the truth we missed in our melancholy. Often God took that choice we may think was such a mistake and turned it into something far more significant and “on time” than we are remembering. After all, He is an expert at redemption of not only us, but the time can be turned into something that grew us into the character He had in mind.
I recall so well growing up in my family with a desire to always please my parents. One of my dad’s greatest desires was for me to have a great education and go to college. It was something he had never had the opportunity to do as a result of his dad’s death when he was just 5 and his older brother’s death when he was only 13 and needed to step into the role of farming the family farm with the help of his uncles. That desire was a vow he made to himself before he even had a child of his own. He was not wealthy and unsure of how he could afford it, but he was determined to find a way no matter what sacrifice he needed to make. He was going to do something positive with the regret of his lack of a good education.
As I neared high school graduation, he went to a local banker out of his uncertainty at the big cost before him. The wise banker told him not to look at the whole four years but to take one quarter at a time and trust for the next one. My dad was a man of faith and took that as the right path because he also did not want me burdened by a student loan.
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I was well aware of this precious sacrifice and desire, so it was with more than a little trembling that I shared that the young man whom I met my sophomore year of college and had been dating had now proposed marriage. My dad liked this young man a lot but made clear he wanted me to wait until graduation two years ahead to marry. I assured him that I would. But I decided to help things along a bit by going to summer school since my fiancé was already a year ahead of me.
My fiance’s graduation included a commission as a United States Marine Corps officer and off he went to a state hundreds of miles away while I soldiered on toward my own degree that was still four quarters away. As we were looking ahead toward a wedding, one obvious period of a two-week leave came with only one more quarter till I would finish college. Again, I agreed that if we married then that I would stay behind and finish that last quarter so with yet another promise agreed to, we were married just before Christmas and New Year’s Day my new husband left without me to a new duty station even farther away. He told me it was unlikely he would be able to get married housing until I was finished and with that hope I returned to campus.
But those promises suddenly seemed too much when he got housing for us almost immediately while I was living in a dorm with single women. It felt unbearable to be apart from him so I made the decision to break my promise and go join him with yet another promise I would still finish. I still recall the heartache and regret I felt when I shared that decision with my dad knowing it hurt him. But off I went with no assurance of when I could or would be able to finish college.
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Little did we know that my husband’s unit would get orders to be out of country for 5 months beginning in June. But that gave me the window to fulfill my promise to my dad. I returned home and by the end of the summer I crossed the finish line not only keeping my promise and blessing my dad but becoming the first member of my family on either side to graduate from college.
That regret was met with a kept promise and a gratefulness I took that risk for those precious 5 months we had before he had to leave for 5 months. Even then we did not know in another 2 he would receive orders overseas for 14 months of separation. God used regret in this in so many ways for good.
Should we look back?
“The burden of regret is that, unless we come to understand the value of the choices we made in the past, we may fail to see the gifts they have brought us. The blessing of regret is clear – it brings us, if we are willing to face it head on, to the point of being present to this new time of life in an entirely new way. It urges us on to continue becoming.”Joan Chittister from The Gift of Years
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