If Only: Letting Go of Regret
“No regrets.” Sprayed across t-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters, these words were the 80s version of today’s YOLO (You Only Live Once) and Horace’s “carpe diem.” We have so many sayings like this, reminders that life is short, you can’t count on tomorrow, so don’t miss opportunities, that you’d think we all know exactly how to live a life with no regrets.
I’m sitting here at this computer with a half-smile on my face, the kind I get when I’m feeling especially cynical and, well, regretful. I’ve made plenty of choices I regret, whether it’s words said without thought, purchases made without counting the cost, or the most haunting of all, losing my temper with my kids. If we’re honest, we all have made mistakes that we’d do over if we could, don’t we? I try not to stay long, but I’ve spent plenty of time thinking “If only…”
If I stay too long there, it drags me into a downward spiral. This is what Michelle van Loon, featured writer on Her.meneutics (by Christianity Today), writes about in the book she releases next month, “If Only: Letting Go of Regret.”
I read an advance release copy two weeks ago while traveling for work, and as I told Michelle later, I had to choke back tears a couple of times. Heaven forbid that I should cry in an airport terminal or next to a total stranger on a plane! She deals with the topic with the gentleness it needs. I got to interview her this week for her book release. Check it out, and then get yourself a copy!
Joy: Why did you write this book, and why did you write it now?
Michelle: Have you ever had a time in your life when it seemed like you were having the same conversation with every person who crossed your path? As I moved into midlife, I kept having conversations with my age peers, all of whom were in the midst of their midlife transition. They would express regrets about the way they’d parented their children, their career paths, their marriages, their divorces, and the way they’d navigated relationships with aging parents or their siblings. I had quite a list of my own regrets to match theirs.
I’d learned through some of the reading and study I was doing that spiritual growth at midlife happens as we come to terms with the reality that we don’t get a do over in our life. Our if only’s contain the potential for growth if only we have ears to hear what God is saying to us through them.
In the church, we aren’t always very comfortable talking about our regrets, particularly those we’ve racked up after coming to faith in Christ. I discovered that God had embedded an invitation to maturity, wisdom and whole-hearted courage in my regrets. That repeated conversation and my experience prayerfully processing those regrets sparked my writing. I quickly discovered that the topic of regret appeals to many, not just those at midlife. We all have regrets.
Joy: You wrote about the way stuffing our regrets and hiding from them hurts us down the road. When you described our tendency to gloss over and oversimplify the process of dealing with our past choices, I found myself wanting to sit with that awhile. How do we know we’ve stuffed instead of dealt with things?
Michelle: There’s no simple litmus test that will reveal the stuff we’ve stuffed, sadly. In the book, I tell the story of a friend who was a good Christian girl. She did everything “right” in order to cover up the shame she felt as a result of being sexually abused during her childhood. She had done nothing wrong, thus, had nothing to regret – but her precision in getting her behavior just right all the time was her way of avoiding dealing with the pain and confusion of her childhood experience.
If we’re burying regrets, we’re often trying to hide from them in the same way. We may be especially rigid or legalistic, particularly in the areas closely related to our regrets. Or we may self-medicate with eating, drinking, shopping, drugging, as a way to anesthetize our shame. We may over-compensate. We may sink into depression and be able to connect the dots to why.
I’m hoping my book will encourage many readers to begin to name, face, and prayerfully come to terms with their regrets with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Those regrets can be redeemed in our lives, for God’s glory and our good.
Joy: Lastly, this was probably my biggest question after reading your book — what about what’s happening in my life NOW. How can we deal in healthier ways with more recent regrets, or the mistakes we make in our present? How do we head off tomorrow’s if-onlys so they don’t come back to haunt later?
Michelle: That’s such a great question! No matter how intentionally we live, let’s face it – we’re going to blow it. That’s why we need a Savior! Submitting to his leadership and being honest about our struggles, temptations and failures – as well as our dreams, desires and affections – will help us live an honest, courageous, whole-hearted life.
Joy: Do you think you’ll write more books? Are you working on anything now? If yes, what can you tell us about it?
Michelle: I’m a writer, so I’m always dreaming about future writing projects. Some are small – lots of blog ideas for my Pilgrim’s Road Trip blog at Patheos, and some are book-length dreams. I’d love to write about the Jewish Feasts described in Leviticus 23 and their relationship to the Christian calendar. I’d welcome the opportunity to write about spiritual growth at midlife and beyond. My goal is to point readers toward Jesus, no matter what I write.
Thank you so much for inviting me to visit your blog today, Joy!