Woulda, coulda shoulda
It’s never too late to turn regrets into actions aimed at enjoying old age
By Patti Carmalt-Vener 01/27/2012
I’m 82, a widower, healthy, but by most standards I guess I’m an old man. While I appreciate your recent columns about New Year’s resolutions, my issue is more about the past. I’ve lived a good life but can’t shake a few regrets. I’m close to my three wonderful sons and six grandchildren, but everyone else in my immediate family has died.
I regret all the words of love toward my mother and brother that went unspoken while they were still alive. I regret never standing up to my father for the hurt, fear and humiliation he put all of us through when he was drinking. I also regret that I put so much of my life into work as a way to show I was worthy of my father’s approval, but I see now that I should have been doing more things that made me happy.
I’m not obsessing or anything, but as I get on in years I can’t help but be aware of these disappointments and am wondering what you thought about that. — Walter
It’s a commonly held view that, as people get older and start to watch others around them die, they often contemplate all the roads not taken and sometimes feel a sense of remorse. Like you, many of them wish they had expressed their true feelings to loved ones or unburdened themselves of years of repressed feelings of resentment and bitterness. While this can be a painful process, it can also produce tremendous emotional growth.
Another common regret is the realization that working really hard, long hours ultimately accomplished few lasting rewards beyond a paycheck. As a popular saying goes, “Nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’” The lost days, months and years that might have been spent with spouses, children and parents come to be seen, in retrospect, as more valuable than being the breadwinner and doing what others expected of them rather than pursuing their own dreams. Some of those derailed dreams typically include having a career they really love, getting a better education or spending time on what they love doing.
Not staying in touch with old friends is another cause of remorse. Much too often in the hectic pace of everyday living, neglected friendships can fall through the cracks and slip away. Absent the time and effort necessary to nurture and sustain them, it then becomes a deep disappointment to realize cherished friends moved away long ago and are now impossible to find. At a time in people’s lives when they probably want nothing more than to sit and reminisce with dear old friends, they discover friends are now few and far between.
In the tally of one’s material possessions — or lack thereof — two that commonly cause sadness are the dream house they were never able to buy or the dream to travel the world that they never had the money for.
Romantic regrets come in various forms, such as marrying the “wrong” person, not putting more effort into their marriage, doing something that hurt their partner or letting someone special get away. Never having children, never having children of a particular gender, having too many children or having them too early in life are also common regretful choices.
You mention in your letter that you wish you’d done more things throughout your life that made you happy. You’re not alone, Walter. It takes effort to be happy and to seek out what truly makes one joyful. The good news is that it’s never too late to start. Too often people stay in staid patterns and old habits and refuse to embrace spontaneity, silliness, laughter and fun. While the thought process inherent in examining unfulfilled dreams may be painful at times, history is often the best teacher in guiding you through some self-correcting adjustments. Your newfound wisdom, stemming from facing your regrets, can now be used for the rest of your life to create a richer, fuller existence, more meaningful relationships and the opportunity to teach and share with your sons and grandchildren.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her Web site: patticarmalt-vener.com.