By Dr. Victor S. Sierpina and Michelle Sierpina
"Regrets, I’ve had a few ... but then again, too few to mention.” Thus goes the old song by Frank Sinatra.
Along the same theme and perhaps even better known is the poem “The Road Not Taken“ by Robert Frost, most notably and quotably, the last lines:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
As a family physician, I frequently meet and work with individuals and families in which a major issue is some past choice that led to a hurt, a mistake, a poor investment or an abusive relationship. That path weighs heavily on their hearts and health. The death of a child, a divorce, a job loss or other deeply felt disappointment may sometimes become an overwhelming burden. If we let it, such an event can overshadow what is otherwise a reasonably good, healthy and prosperous life.
Sometimes, past things cannot be changed, and sometimes they can. Forgiving oneself can often be the key to allow healing to begin. At other times, we might follow the example given in the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program. Steps 8 and 9 of that program offer the following suggestions:
- Make a list of all persons we have harmed, and be willing to make amends to them all.
- Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Clearing up old stuff is like cleaning our closet or garage. It gives us room for new things to arrive and the space and energy to enjoy them. As the Frost poem states, things do not always go as we expect. As much as we would like to, we cannot retrace our steps and start over. Let me give a personal example.
As a kid growing up in landlocked Phoenix, I was intrigued by the videography and vision of Jacques Cousteau, the oceanographer. I charged into college at Arizona State University with the dream of becoming a marine biologist. I did well enough to get accepted to graduate school for advanced study. Only after I was there did I discover the devastating fact that I became incapacitated by severe sea sickness whenever aboard an oceanography research vessel. This pushed me out of the marine biology field. A bachelor’s degree in biology wasn’t very useful back then for employment.
I subsequently worked a few years as a laborer, a freight and furniture loader, a semi-truck driver and finally a manager in a transportation company. I eventually took advantage of my degree to enter medical school. That has worked out well so far. My dream of becoming a tennis pro? Maybe in a future life.
The lesson is although things don’t always turn out how we might expect, if we maintain optimism and perseverance, greater things will happen in our lives. To quote another esteemed philosopher, Henry David Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”
Such boldness requires courage when things go awry and problems arise. If we keep our eye on the Pole Star of our dreams, we can find the inner strength, faith and conviction to continue, despite bleak circumstances.
I still stand in awe of all our Galveston County and UTMB community, friends and neighbors in how they survived the devastation of Ike. Now a distant memory, this trauma five years ago was a natural disaster that highlighted the power and resolve we can muster, as individuals, families and a community to make it through the worst of times.
So maybe you have regrets about something that happened in the past, or something that didn’t happen. Perhaps it was something that you did that you can no longer change, or some other trauma, personal injury or series of events you suffered. If something seems to be holding you back from being healthy, or from doing the next best thing in your life, consider one or all of the following strategies:
- Make a list of your strengths and personal assets, not just your problems.
- Remember that the choices you made in the past, however they turned out, were based on what you thought was the best at the time.
- Forgive yourself and/or seek forgiveness from your Higher Power.
- When appropriate, ask for forgiveness from others and make amends if you can.
- When your regrets come to mind, let them be, don’t dwell on them. Instead, live the life you have imagined.