Why Regret the Road Not Taken?

Stairway to forest

A person is not old until their regrets take the place of their dreams.

~ Proverb

Yesterday, my client Cliff told me his business is really picking up and he has some ideas for new products. We had a great discussion about his ideas and he will be pursuing a few of them in the near future.  Then the conversation took an interesting turn.  He told me that he has so much regret in his heart, it's eating him up alive. His mother passed away over a year ago and he was struggling financially when she was alive. He regretted not having found his business success earlier so he would have had more money to take care of her and she could have shared in the joy of his success. I immediately understood and identified with the feeling of wanting to make our parents proud and see them happy.  However, there was a huge piece of the picture that all of Cliff’s regret was blocking. About ten years ago, Cliff moved back in with his mother after struggling financially for a very long time.  At that time, Cliff's mother became ill.  Cliff took such good care of her, taking her to doctor appointments, cooking for her, managing her medicine and anything else that she needed. At one time she had pneumonia and she might not have recovered if Cliff had not been there for her.

After sitting for awhile with him, I said, “Cliff, you are stuck in a Reverse Maybe.” He looked at me puzzled and asked, “What is a Reverse Maybe?” I said, “You are re-writing a story about what might have been if you had a more successful business at that time.  But, you have no idea what your life and your mother's life would have looked like if that had been the case. You might have been so busy with all of your work and success that you might not have had the time to take such good care of her; she might never have recovered from that bout of pneumonia so many years ago. You might have been so busy that you would have missed out on all of your time together. Yes, she might have had a few more fancy handbags but that could never have taken the place of the quality time you spent together. Maybe you were exactly where you needed to be then and you are exactly where you need to be now. So, enjoy your current success and know that your mother was blessed to have a loving, devoted son like you.”

Cliff looked at me with tears in his eyes.  He recognized in that moment that he had no idea what his life would have been if his business had become more successful years ago. But he knew that he had taken very good care of his mother. This change in thinking won't change how he misses his mother but it will allow Cliff to move forward without looking back at what might have been.

I can’t tell you how often people come to see me with similar stories. They tell me about the missed business opportunity or the woman or man that got away, or the job they wish they had taken. Could different choices have been good and filled my clients' lives with joy? Yes, but it is also possible that the opportunity would have brought other issues into their lives, and the woman or man that got away would have resulted in a rocky and unpleasant relationship, and the job may have ended after the first week. Remember, regret is just a story we make up about how our lives could have been better if we had made another choice -  but in reality, we really don't know what life would have looked like and we never will. The twists and turns of life might have taken us to other unexpected places and maybe not for the better at all.

All we can know is that everything that has happened before in our lives has brought us to this moment.  Within this moment there is no regret. There is only the hope that Maybe we can create the lives that we want from this point forward.

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