Wednesday, June 25, 2014
It's Time to Kick Regret's Ass
I've been thinking about my mom a lot, which is nothing new, I think about her often, but lately I’ve found myself returning to these little quotidian moments between us, the ones that just feel shot through with significance. My mother moved in with us after she had developed early-onset Alzheimer's and a debilitating condition related to Parkinson’s; she lived with us for nearly three years. One evening, as we often did, the two of us were sitting on her bed, looking through her photo albums. These pictures provided an essential gateway to the very few topics that we could still both understand and talk about together. As we were looking through some photos, I offhandedly commented on one picture of her as a teenager in a dress, telling her how pretty she looked. She deflected. “Oh, I was never pretty.”
Undeterred, I pulled out another photo and showed it to her. She had her dark hair in a beehive, refined features, porcelain skin, a confident lift to her chin. "Look at this picture. How can you say that you weren’t beautiful?" She looked at the photo and then turned to the mirror on her dresser with tears in her eyes. She said was silent for a moment, then quietly said, "Why didn't I ever know it?" My mother said it to me as well as to herself, her voice cracking. As I did so often those days, I found myself crying in the bathroom. This was a woman who was adored by her friends, who was funny, loving, unique and, yes, beautiful. Still, she couldn’t find a way to believe in herself enough to put herself out there and pursue more of what she wanted out of life - to even know what she wanted out of life - so her last years were steeped in regret.
Regret has got to be one of the most painful of our emotions. It just chips away at us from the inside like a chisel we’ve swallowed. Chip, crack, crunch. In that moment between us, it wasn’t so much about sadness over lost beauty because, let's face it, beauty is a shallow and ultimately slippery accolade to try to hang onto in life. The deeper sentiment here - of not appreciating herself, of not enjoying what she had when she had it - was of waste and regret, and that was what struck both of us so painfully in that moment.
Of course, this is something that so many will understand. How often and how many of us have pressed pause on what we want to do with our lives because we think we’re not thin enough-smart enough-attractive enough-accomplished enough to put ourselves out there? How many of us have given up on our dreams altogether because we feel we’re not young enough, we’ve got a saggy neck, too many freckles, a less than model-perfect nose? When I think about how much could have been contributed to society in the arts, in medicine, in science, in social justice, in progress, but never even had a chance to see the light of day because those who had the talent were afraid to be seen or heard, it fills me with a profound sadness. How many people have remained unfulfilled on the sidelines and how much have we, as a society, missed out on? How many trailblazers, humanitarians, cures, advancements, innovations, works of art that could have lifted us all up but never materialized? It cannot be measured. This absence, the erasure of what could have been, is so deeply tragic.
In the case of women, for every Nightingale, Curie, Mead, Piaf and Angelou, imagine the countless others who have never been able to explore their interests and talents, much less pursue them. Finally, we are living at a time in history when many who would have otherwise been prevented from chasing their passions can be seen and heard. Those who would never have had the option of a life outside of the home now, on the surface at least, have access to that. What are the messages women hear now, though, with strangers commenting on us online? “You’re fat.” “You’re old.” “You’re a bitch.” “You’re a slut.” Or how about all of them swirled together in a cocktail of misogyny?
As the remarkable social work professor and researcher Brené Brown unambiguously notes in this interview, (it’s fairly long but highly, highly recommended, however, if you want to skip forward, the relevant section starts at 57:45), after reading the comments following her viral TED talk on vulnerability - there’s an irony for you - she would have gotten out of her career altogether had there not been a groundswell of momentum pushing her and her work forward. This is a woman who has gone on to write a book that became a best-seller and has had a positive influence on so many lives: not only would she have missed out on pursuing her passions, which is tragic enough, but all those who have been inspired by her work and her encouragement to put themselves out there would have missed out as well. And so would the world have missed out with the withdrawal of their gifts and inspiration.
Imagine the number of people who simply do not have the support and momentum Brené Brown did propelling them. This is more than 99% of us. People trying to make it in the arts, in the sciences, in the fields we are passionate about. When we are vilified, when we are demeaned and personally attacked, we are told, essentially, “Who are you to believe that you deserve to be seen and heard?” Even the most confident and accomplished people would avoid making themselves vulnerable to such ugly and painfully personal attacks magnified as they are today in the public domain.
There are huge cultures that keep women out of the public arena because they are steeped in patriarchy. Just as some of us now finally have the privilege of access and opportunity, we are being pushed out the door again through a pervasive, mean-spirited culture of anonymous hit-and-run personal attacks. So this whole essay exists to make just one point: Regret is a million times worse than being embarrassed in public. Regret is a million times worse than holding yourself back. Regret is a million times worse than not putting your work out in the world to be attacked and criticized. Regret is a million times worse than not knowing what could have been. Having sat with my mother toward the end of her life and having access to her thoughts, it’s quite possible that I think there is no human emotion more painful and futile than regret.
Whether we believe we're beautiful or unattractive, that we've got lots of opportunities or our best years are in the past, it's up to us. In other words, if you have a pimple or two, show up and be awesome with your pimple or two. If you don't have flat abs, you are still allowed to live your life fully. If you have some grey hairs, weird eyebrows, a scar on your mouth: this is still it. Time isn't going to stop and wait for everything to line up perfectly so you can pursue the life you want. There is no magic wand, either, to make the vitriolic critics disappear so you’re going to have to be stronger, bigger and bolder than they are - which you are - simply evidenced by the fact that you are sticking your neck out and they are the bitter ones spewing invective. You will still be hurt because you are not a machine, you have feelings, but, speaking from personal experience, over time it starts to hurt less and less and you start to really understand how to differentiate the opinions that count and the ones that simply don’t matter.
Don't find yourself grieving one day that you didn't know you were gorgeous, hilarious, amazing and now you realize that you wasted all that time. Now is the only time we’ve been promised, this one life and this one moment. Do it for every girl whose been told she’s a slut for daring to upload a video of herself singing. Do it for your best friend who chucked her dream of being a public speaker because someone made a snide remark about her lisp. Do it for someone who never believed she was beautiful enough, smart enough, enough enough to live the life she wants now. Do it for all those who never had the opportunity but burned with desire. Do it for yourself.
Find a way to live without regrets.