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Updated: Mar 18

An albatross which represents regret

Regrets, I’ve had a few but then again too few to mention. I did what I had to do………. And I did it my way, Frank Sinatra sang in the 1969 song, My Way

Set to the music of the 1967 French tune, Comme d'habitude, My Way climbed to number 2 on America's Easy Listening Tunes and topped the chart in the UK for weeks on end. It was popularized, no doubt, because the lyrics, clear, clean, and contemplative struck a chord.

In fact, in 1969 and today, Regret is something most people experience in the course of their life.

Dan Pink, a lawyer and best selling author, said in his 2022 book, The Power of Regret, “When someone claims, ‘No regrets,’ that’s nonsense and even dangerous thinking.”

In his World Regret Survey Pink took responses from people in 105 countries. He found in this country 82 percent of Americans have experienced regret at least occasionally. Twenty percent experience this emotion frequently, or all the time. Only two percent claim to have never experienced it. 

But what is regret?

Not categorized as a core emotion with fear, anger, happiness, sadness, surprise and disgust, Regret is a counterfactual emotion, according to psychological researcher Giorgio Coricelli. Counterfactual relates to what has not happened, or did not happen. Regret, is an assessment about what might have been, due to the choices made at a time in history, ie looking backwards. 

It is a purely private comparison of choices we could have taken. Lightning-switch feelings of guilt and shame burst in when someone begins ruminating over a regret. Tossing and turning in the wee hours can become one’s MO. I should have done that. Why didn’t I just go there? On, and on.

 The 19th century British Prime Minister Disraeli said, 

Youth is a blunder, manhood a struggle, old age a regret.

I find Disraeli’s quote prophetic. 

Some thirty plus years ago, I got broadsided on my way home from work, in downtown Phoenix. I fell out of my late model Buick onto the street, shocked and shaken, saying to myself, I’ve been hit!

The impact of the old Chevy on the passenger side of my car, had thrown me against the steering wheel, seat belt latched and all, cracking my sternum. An ambulance arrived quickly and I was rushed to the hospital where I spent the night, injuries superficial, even the hair line sternum fracture. 

That night, on the other side of the curtain in my room lay 85 year old Tom. He talked most of the night, me listening to him tell tales of his life. His theme, believing he was nearing the big goodbye as he called it, was deep regret: I should have, I could have, why didn’t I. His sorrows were mostly about missed chances, poor choices, mostly made early in his life.  

I remember thinking then, all those decades ago, if I made it to Tom’s age, or whatever age, I didn’t want to wind up when the big goodbye came, pining over should haves. 

The clock ticks. Now, still some distance from Tom’s age, but seeing the sand in the hourglass slip through the bulbs, Tom’s lament harangues. And in the wee hours, as with Tom, they are about missed chances, poor choices in early life.

It was a late August, Midwest humid, two weeks before school began when I and some 50 other 14 year old boys showed up for freshman football tryouts. Most made it through the two-day ordeal of agility drills. On the third day names were posted on the locker room door listing who made the squad.

I saw my name and along with a select few was directed upstairs to the gym where we were given equipment. Immediately, the soon-to-be rising star in the high school coaching world grabbed me by the elbow and said, “Mcgee you are our center.” He then took another five or so boys, placed them to the right and left of me and said to the other coach, “This is our offensive line.”   

I was more broad-shouldered and wide-waisted than most of the lads, so center seemed like a good fit. And the bonus was, I got to handle the ball.

 For several weeks, all was well. We learned plays. The center’s job was to get the ball to the quarterback, who happened to be one of my best friends, and long-hike the ball precisely when punt time came. Also, as a leader, the center set up where the team would huddle.

I took my responsibility seriously and told my dad who seemed proud his first son was center on the team. But on the third week of practice, the Coach pulled me aside and said, “Mcgee, Crow came up to me and said he could play center better than you and I am moving you to tackle.” He waited, as if he wanted me to argue with him. “Any problem with that, Mcgee?”  

I felt a pang in my stomach, but said, “No coach, that’s fine.” 

Therein began my history with the looking-backs of regret. Why didn’t I tell the coach, I’ll try harder, I really want to be the center. That could have made all the difference in how my football career panned out. I’d taken pride in my position as being center on the team, but being suddenly relegated to a cloddy lineman position had little appeal to me. And so I withered out on the game, finally discouraged so much after several seasons as a right tackle, and a bad one, I quit. 

I succumbed to meekness. A dashed football career rises not to the level of regrets of the spirit and soul. But being a contemplative sort, that small sorrow in the larger picture played into how I contended with other situations which arose.

I had a boss tell me much later, “Mike, the job was yours, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Your wheels aren’t squeaky enough. Speak up for yourself.” 

Crow could have been a better choice for the job as team center back then. I had a soft demeanor. But one thing for certain his wheels were more squeaky than mine. 

While research suggests older adults are less regretful than younger people, there is hope for anyone who has fallen into the regret crack, young or old: When going backward with regret, go forward and move on.

Pink says “going forward can keep you from looking back. From our regrets we learn lessons about living.” 

Insight into why we regret one choice made over another can be a useful endeavor, if one is given to analysis.

One rule, personal accountability is useful, but self blame not so much. Look at the circumstances that arose around the choices you made at that time. And recall what emotional state you were in then.

Research about the nuances of regret abound, but when asked about ‘My Way’ Sinatra offered a simple truth. “I never much liked it. It was a far too self indulgent tune for me,” he said.

Perhaps, that says it all about regret. If we get caught up in the defeats of yesterday, we never live in the today.

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