Living with Regret in a Control-Z World
Of all the emotions I’ve ever felt, regret is one of the most difficult. It’s not just painful, it’s sickening.
With grief, you feel sorrow over loss. With regret, you feel sorrow over loss compounded by guilt. You’re not just processing pain, you’re realizing that something stupid or selfish that you have done has caused pain. And you haven’t just damaged yourself, you've damaged people you love.
A few weeks ago, I was attempting to comfort a friend who had made a horrible mistake she couldn’t undo. As she replayed the memory of her error, she kept wishing she could just go back a few days to prevent what had happened. I watched her grief cycle from, “How could I have been so stupid?” to “Why didn’t I just think!” to “I was distracted!” Then, as she assessed the people she had hurt, she would collapse into self-condemnation. I tried to look for a bright side, some lesson to be gained, some benefit that would rise out of the ashes. But mostly, I understood her despair. I’ve made bad decisions, too. Some of those I would give my life to undo.
I tend to be playful on the outside, but deep down, I’m a hyper-responsible perfectionist. I try to keep that part of my personality hidden, because perfectionists are (let’s face it) annoying. I don’t want people feeling judged or nervous around me. I don’t want them picking me apart because they feel picked apart by me.
So I intentionally let surface details slide at times, and I tease and volley. But underneath all that, when it comes to values or long term investments, I’m 100% type-A, obsessive, determined. I make sure that I do the most important things right. I’ll do any work that’s necessary, no matter how hard that work is, to reach the results that I want.
Well, until I don’t.
There have been times when I couldn’t finish the race.
There have been times when my flesh was too weak.
Twice in my life, devastating news has hit smack in the middle of a big hormone swing. If that news had come three or four days sooner or later, I would have been strong and selfless. But no. This news hit on the worst possible day, right in the middle of a migraine. I roared so destructively over the next 48 hours that the relational damage I caused lasted for years. There was no way to undo it.
Once in my life, temptation hit when I was so tired and so broken that I was desperate for any sort of relief. (Our tempter plays chess.) Though I didn’t give in to this temptation physically, I did let it distract my focus and my heart. In that wave of distraction, I missed crucial opportunities with people I love—opportunities that I will never be able to embrace again. I also let temptation breed resentment in my heart—resentment that may have done as much (or more) damage as any physical sin that I could have committed.
While I can name those three big regrets, lesser regrets also swarm like angry yellow jackets in my memory. In macrocosm, in microcosm, I’ve messed up so much that I wish I could undo.
A thousand times I have wasted money, resources, focus. A thousand times, I have dropped the lesser baton. I haven’t prayed for my children in the ways I should have--haven’t prayed for my husband, my students as faithfully as I wish I had. I have mocked when I should have empathized. I have raged when I should have waited. I have been selfish when I could have been a servant. My heart has been divided when focus could have healed someone.
When I look back over all those mistakes, my inner perfectionist recites tapes of condemnation. “How could you do that? Why weren’t you strong when it actually counted? None of this other stuff matters if you couldn’t handle that. It’s hopeless now. You’ve ruined it all.”
It’s horrible knowing that none of that can be erased. I live in a world where comments can be deleted and where a simple Control-Z command can undo my mistakes. But real life is permanent. And the consequences of real life are permanent.
Last week I was reading one of those hateful blog posts by one of those mean, hyper-legalistic Calvinists, and as he railed on the teachings of two different writers, he used phrases like, “burning a strange fire before the Lord” and “give an account of every word spoken.”
I felt my knees go weak, because here was the echo to every accusation I hear every day of my life. “You screw things up. Your deeds aren’t good enough.”
Actually, I know that, Mr. Cruel Calvinist. I live so much of my life tormented by my own insufficiency. And while you might talk about grace as sustenance, nothing about your haughty demeanor rings of it. When you write, I see the garbs of a temple priest scowling because the lamb I’ve brought for slaughter isn’t perfect.
I would never admit this to Mr. Cruel Calvinist, but inside, I do flinch at his confidence. He frightens me more than anyone, because if heaven really is full of people who stand scowling at people like me, calling us names, nitpicking, what use is it? What fire isn’t strange before a holy God? If an imperfect person like me can be so hard on herself, that her stomach stays in knots, what flaws would a perfect being find in me?
Today is Spy Wednesday, the day in Holy Week in which Judas was supposed to have betrayed Jesus. This was the day Jesus was ambushed, snared, double crossed. This is the day when I, too, feel the need to throw the thirty pieces of silver that I have chosen over the indwelt life over and again, crying out, “What have I done? I’ve sold him, too! I’ve ruined everything!”
Because to see yourself clearly can make you want to run hopeless away from the cross. This is the second half of the first lie of Eden.
“Eve, do you want to be like God? Knowing good from evil?”
“Becca, you know good from evil now. You also see which you are.”
I regret. I regret so much.
There is no way to undo the damage I’ve done. None. But in the darkness of the grief of a failed perfectionist, there remains a promise.
‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
The old order of things. The old world in which scribes, and Pharisees, and type-A types come up empty handed. The old world in which Peter who has promised to die with His Lord, denies him three times, then runs to hide. The old world in which courage, determination, focus, accuracy, making the right choices at the right time wasn’t enough. The exhausting, damning, shaming, hopeless world of my best effort, two inches too short.
“My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.”
It takes a lot for somebody like me to believe that. It goes against our nature.
People like me would rather hang on to regret as evidence that we could have done better if God had given us a better circumstance.
We would rather think, “That wasn’t fair,” or, “I was cheated,” or, “I was set up,” or “Give me another shot at it, instead of, “That was too hard. I couldn’t do it.”
Lately when I catch myself being sucked into the bottomless pit of regret, I’m taking a leap. This leap felt super uncomfortable at first, because it goes against everything in my nature. It feels evasive. It feels like giving up. But then I remember that Paul made this leap, too.
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Delight in weakness? Oh boy.
If I could go back an undo all the harm I’ve done, I would do it. I’m sure that if Paul could have gone back to stop the murders he urged, he would have made that choice in a heartbeat. But there is a difference between sorrow over wrongs done and letting your mistakes reiterate your bad theology. And believing that we could do this right if the circumstances were right is bad theology.
We need Jesus. That’s why He came.
So I’m slowly praying against my shame nature, praying prayers of gratitude with a wobbling voice, gratitude that my weakness points me to Christ’s big-enough strength. While I do this, I’m simultaneously asking Him somehow to hover over the chaos of my past wrongs and make beauty rise out of the messes I’ve made.
This is so hard. It’s a 180 degree switch, in fact.
But in glimmers, I see that there is a way to stand in the full truth of my inadequacy without letting shame and regret drive me back into the self-determination that will never produce the results I want. Jesus said, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” And though it is a painful classroom, regret is teaching me that he means it.