There are nights when I wake up in a panic. It’s usually 3:00 a.m. when it’s too early to get up and too late to, well, get up. My body vibrates from a suffocating sense of impending doom. At first, it’s just a vague awareness of “something’s wrong” and I search my brain for evidence. In the dark, my sense of hearing is heightened. I listen. I hear nothing beyond the hum of the humidifier and Paul’s gentle snoring (yes, even in his sleep, this man is the most thoughtful person on Earth). I open my eyes and scan my surroundings. No sinister figures stand over me, no ghostly apparitions. Everything is in its place, as it should be.
I cast my inner gaze a little further afield and call up a vision of each of our children. I see their faces, I see them in their homes, I make note that they are all safe and healthy and even happy. I see my mom, having recently and successfully undergone treatment for cancer for the second time. My mind wanders to my practice, my clients – is there anything there that is particularly worrying? I continue to run down my checklist of possible present-day concerns and realize that there is really nothing, in the here and now, that is vexing me. So, that leaves me with The Past.
The Past is a freakin’ nightmare in itself, isn’t it? ALL the regrets. All the should-haves and could-haves. All the really bad choices, stupid mistakes, times when you were mean or dismissive to others, the way you yelled at your kids, held a grudge for too long, maligned the reputation of a good friend. The list … feels … endless.
In the middle of the night, it doesn’t take long for my mind to spiral down the rabbit hole of self-contempt. Every remembrance of cringe-worthy douchebaggery running like a home video on a loop. Ephemeral visions of regretful incidents, scenes of my life in murky opaqueness that I can’t quite see but can feel to the depths of my soul, in the deepest pit of my stomach.
Desperately, I try to change the narrative, conjure up ways I could have/should have made amends. I see myself offering explanations, defending my actions. I hope for understanding and compassion and forgiveness. My apologies always include a but as in, “I’m so sorry I said those horrible things to you BUT I was going through a hard time blah, blah, blah.” Trying to soften the self-inflicted blow. This doesn’t feel good, though, so I try it without the but. “I’m so sorry I said those horrible things to you.” Full stop. It’s mine to own.
And I wonder, how many apologies is the right number to obtain absolution?
It’s hard to be reconciled with the person we were growing up, when we really didn’t know any better. It’s easy and comforting to look back with the wisdom of hindsight and see where we could have, perhaps should have, done things differently. If you get to be my age and have no regrets, you haven’t lived a life.
Is it enough to just do our best with the life tools we’ve collected so far? Yes, I believe it is. How can we be expected to do anything else? I often say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” The important thing is to strive to know; obstinate ignorance isn’t really a valid choice if you want to be a decent, conscious human being.
In the middle of the night, an attitude of self-love is not forthcoming. At 3:00 a.m., it’s too hard to reason. It’s a visceral, dream-like time when the demons of the subconscious are at play. The mind may be reeling but it fails to make sense of or offer relief from the feelings in the body. It follows the body’s agitated lead and fuels the fires of dread by calling up the evidence of guilt and shame, like a prosecuting attorney, with a laundry list of infractions.
The light of day, though, brings reprieve. I am able to remember all the amends I have made over the years. I can remind myself that some pretty challenging experiences served to impede my ability to trust people, to love myself, and to believe that I deserved good things. I can give myself credit for the brave and faithful actions I have taken, despite all evidence to the contrary that it would go well for me. I can remind myself that I did, indeed, do the very best I could with what life had thrown my way.
Perhaps that is my advice for those of you who are still in the thick of things. When you’re struggling in a relationship or a job or you question how you are parenting your children, or you wonder if you will ever heal enough from your wounds that you can have confidence in your choices and a strong sense of self-determination, ask yourself, “Will this become a regret?” Will you look back on your life (from the lofty and wise age of middle age) and wish you had chosen differently? Wish that you had said no sooner or wish that you had left your relationship when you first noticed the red flags? Wish that you lived a life with less fear and more faith in self?
It's true that the whole point of this human life is to learn and grow, to understand and to nurture compassion. And, in so doing, we are asked to experience some pretty hard things along the way. I think the key, though, is to know when enough is enough. We hang on too long to situations that no longer serve our greater good. If we can focus on the fact that other people are our greatest teachers of self, we can, with gratitude, let go when the lesson has been learned. We can also thank all those people who found themselves on our path, either positively or negatively, because no matter what transpired, we were both teacher and student to each other.
And so, I ask, what can you change about your life now that you will be able to pre-emptively check off your 3:00 a.m. list of regrets and never have to look back at with a questioning unease?