Illustration by Tom Sullivan
By Ron Marr
Nostalgia tends to replay itself in monochromatic tones, with recollections of events and deeds too often viewed through a black and white prism. In the wee and silent hours, during those moments when we find ourselves pondering the cobwebs and dusty corners of our personal histories, it is easy to forget. Gone from our minds are the intricacies, details, and conflicts that led us to make a certain decision. We see only the highlight reel, the big plays, the outcome.
Success and failure are more grandiose in retrospect than they were in reality; long-gone yesterdays typically provide blurred reflections that lack a warning sticker announcing “objects in mirror may be larger than they appear.” I like to call this the “lore of yore” enigma. A trip down the prettier sections of Memory Lane can be a comfort, a warm and soothing reminiscence of cherished friends and family, of happy times, of a life well-lived. The fifty-cent tour of bygone years can serve as a learning tool, a warning beacon, a time-capsule message sent from ourselves to ourselves.
However, that quiet street is also loaded with booby traps and tripwires. We are entering a danger zone when we place too much emphasis on the whys, what-ifs, and maybes of prior decisions and actions. We are stepping on thin ice when we question ourselves too harshly over that which has gone before. Lessons gleaned from the past are good; berating ourselves over wrong turns and mistakes is not. The former can serve to enlighten, whereas the latter is more akin to an introspective, self-flagellating version of the Spanish Inquisition. The former is helpful, so long as you keep in mind that the past is immutable. The latter is an e-ticket to the thorny pits of regret and self-recrimination.
I’m not sure if I have any regrets. I say that honestly. I’ve wallowed with this question for far too many days and cannot locate a single donkey onto which I might pin a remorseful tail. I’m almost certain, thinking back, that there were quite a few years when I harbored many regrets, when my desire to undo past actions weighed heavy on the shoulders of my soul. That’s no longer the case, and I really never discovered that the burden had been lifted until I started contemplating this piece. I’ve searched the disheveled garage that masquerades as my mind and can’t find any guilt or self-condemnation pertaining to water that has passed under half-forgotten bridges.
Are there things in my life I would have done differently if given the opportunity, if such were possible? Without doubt. Have I hurt people over the course of my life? Certainly. However, when warranted, I’ve done all I could to rectify undeserved damage or pain caused to others. Most of my faulty or off-key decisions have hurt only me, and since I’m still living and functioning and relatively happy, those miscues and stumbles seem not to have been as important or earth-shaking as I assumed at the time.
What changed? Why do I not feel regret? I think it has something to do with time, with experience, with recognizing precedents and attempting to avoid behaviors that have proven untenable. Mostly though, I think it’s something else.
Attitude is everything in this life. I’m a guitar-building, dog-loving recluse. I’m the antithesis of a people person and not on the greatest terms with present society, culture, or technology. But, I’m at peace with that. I’m content. My attitude, my realization, is that while you might occasionally be able to make amends for the past, you can’t ever change it. What’s done is done, and regrets serve no purpose other than raising one’s blood pressure, stealing away hours of sleep, and painting storm clouds upon sunny skies. At first look, regrets might seem to be a punishment or penance that we—judge, jury, and jailer—impose on ourselves.
They are nothing of the sort. Truth is, they are a self-indulgent luxury. They require no effort, provide no resolution, change nothing. They are the cousin of self-pity, a razor-wire barrier that prevents us from taking in the present and dreaming of a better tomorrow.
The new year approaches; it is a time when people resolve to take action, to change, to improve. The vast majority will resolve to lose weight or take part in a smoking cessation program. This is fine and well, but perhaps a better use of the day would be a resolution to dispense with regrets, to view the past for what it is—gone—and concentrate on enjoying this day, this hour, this second.
The past is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.