One of the students in the Operative Magic class said something that expresses an idea I hear often:
“Anyone else wishing they had this class twenty years ago? I wonder if I am out of time and my options have expired.”
Certainly I’ve had these kind of thoughts… thoughts that border on regret. They’re generally not helpful, so my response to the question was “better now than never.”
Still, the question is both valid and common – it deserves a more elaborate response. I’ve dealt with this a lot in my own life and while my regrets and near-regrets are unique to me, the process of dealing with them is not.
Like so much in life, dealing with this isn’t particularly complicated. It’s just hard. You have to be very, very honest with yourself. Not brutally honest, but compassionately honest.
Wishes and regrets are two different things
I sometimes wonder if I ever go a day without wishing that this or that had been different. Certainly I don’t go a week without doing it. Most of these are idle wishes: I wish my family had been rich growing up. I wish I was more athletic. I wish I had bought Apple stock at the IPO, or more realistically, in the late 90s.
I call these idle thoughts “lottery wishes.” They’re things that are nice to dream about, but they’re not going to happen to you, or probably to anybody you know. You can’t get upset about not being born with the bank account of Bill Gates or the athletic ability of Lebron James any more than you can get upset about not winning the lottery. The odds are just too long.
On the other hand, regrets are things that you realistically could have done differently. I could have taken Spanish all through high school instead of dropping it after one year – a working knowledge of Spanish would be very helpful living in Texas.
Regrets are negative emotions, which the toxic positivity crowd wants to banish from our lives. And while dwelling on the negative parts of life is generally unhealthy, so is pretending that everything is fine when it isn’t. Or insisting that everything will eventually work out for the best, even though we know it often doesn’t.
The prescription for handling regrets is to be honest with yourself, beginning with the beginning.
You had no control over where you started
I occasionally hear “spiritual” people say “you chose this life before you were born.” Bullshit. Maybe you chose to incarnate into a less-than-perfect middle class American family, but do you really think anyone chose to be born in a war zone? In a refugee camp or an American immigrant detention center? With childhood cancer?
Perhaps your previous life or lives had some impact on where you started this life… and I emphasize perhaps because I’m not at all convinced that’s the case. But telling people who are hurting “you chose this” is nothing more than victim blaming. Never say this to anyone, and never say it to yourself.
You aren’t responsible for where you started in life. You aren’t responsible for incompetent and/or abusive parents, a toxic religious or political upbringing, or an unjust socio-economic system. It’s not your fault if you were dealt a lousy hand, and you shouldn’t blame yourself for it.
You just have to deal with it… including doing what you can to remove injustices and inequities for those who come after you. Leave the world a better place than you found it.
This is what I mean about being compassionately honest. Do what you need to do, but have no regrets for things over which you had no control.
You couldn’t follow a path that was closed to you at the time
I wish I had discovered this Pagan path when I was much younger. But how could I – it wasn’t open to me.
Of course, Wicca existed years before I was born. OBOD was founded when I was two. And polytheism is as old as humanity.
I knew about none of these things in my college years, much less as a small child. I had been subtly programmed by the Victorian idea of religious “progress” from animism to polytheism to monotheism to Christianity to whatever form of Christianity was most authentic. Never mind the fact that animism isn’t a religion (animism is a worldview, although religions can be animistic) and by the time I was thinking about these things, “sophisticated” people had already decided that the next and final progression was atheism.
You can’t choose a path you don’t know exists.
And if I had discovered witchcraft as a spiritual path at say, age 12, how would that have gone over with my Baptist parents? Not at all. I know a lot of tweens and teens (and older folks) have religious conflicts with their families, and I feel for them. Things would have gotten ugly if I had said I wanted to be an Episcopalian, much less a Druid. Painfully ugly.
It’s not your fault that certain paths or practices where closed to you when you were younger.
But once they open up, it’s up to you what you do with them… and it’s up to you to make sure they’re open for everyone who needs to find them in the future.
You had to go through what you went through to get to where you are
Back in April I wrote Exorcising Fundamentalism: The Steps On My Journey. It wasn’t possible for me to go from realizing there was something inherently wrong with Baptist Christianity to exploring Paganism. I had to go through several intermediate steps.
Could I have done Step 4 (“Exploring Paganism”) quicker than eight years? Possibly. But this was also the time in my life when I was finishing my Master’s degree and then dealing with three cross-country moves in six years, including 2 years 4 months and 9 days in my job from hell. In theory I could have been more devoted to my exploration of Paganism. Maybe if I had, those years would have been easier to deal with. Maybe.
Or maybe I did the best I could dealing with multiple upheavals of my mundane world.
Again, be compassionately honest with yourself. Could you have done better? Realistically? Or did you do the best you could given the circumstances?
That doesn’t mean “it was supposed to be that way” as the toxic positivity crowd insists. That implies there’s some divine plan involved. There wasn’t, and there isn’t.
There is only the way things were, and what you had to do to get from there to where you are.
Some doors close with time
The student asked “I wonder if I am out of time?”
Individual opportunities are often a limited time thing. If your friends are going out to dinner (whenever we can go out to dinner again) either you say yes or you don’t go. If you change your mind an hour later it’s too late.
Some careers have age limits, in practice if not by policy. The U.S. Army won’t take you after 35. Airline pilot have a mandatory retirement age of 65 – if you didn’t start much earlier, you’re not going to have a career as a pilot.
Plus the older you get, the more commitments and other complications you generally have. I looked at a career change in my early 40s. I would have had to go back to school, then start at an entry level position in my mid-40s – making entry level money. I could have done it, but I didn’t want to take a pay cut. Turns out that was the right decision, because my true calling here, not in any paying job.
But most don’t
It seems like half the ministers I encounter (both Unitarian Universalist and Mainline Protestant) are in their second career. It’s not unusual to encounter a newly ordained minister who’s 50, or older. They have the same seminary training as their younger peers, but they also have decades of life experience that only come with time.
If you’re not seeking employment (where age discrimination is real, despite it being illegal) age is rarely a barrier. Here’s an article from Psychology Today titled The Top Ten Late Bloomers Of All Time. They lead with Harlan Sanders, who founded Kentucky Fried Chicken at 65, and Grandma Moses, who started painting at 75.
You’re never too old to learn something new.
No, everything doesn’t happen the way it’s supposed to
This is another take on the “everything happens for a reason” garbage that people mindlessly say when bad things happen. This is weak theology in Christianity and worse theology in Pagan polytheism. Even if you believe the Fates control your life, they do not spin, measure, and cut so things will work out best for you. Far from it.
It may be comforting to think that you’re in the exact place you’re supposed to be for everything to work out fine, but that’s a naïve fantasy. You’re in the exact place you are because of your environment, because of your actions, and because of all the mostly random causes and effects that brought you here.
But regardless of how you got here, you are here.
Now, what do you want to do going forward?
Regrets that seem huge in the moment often fade over time
About three months after I took my job from hell in 1995 I realized I had made a big mistake. Undoing that mistake took two more years – two difficult and frustrating years. I regretted my decision to take the first offer that came to me. Once I got out of the situation, though, I realized that I learned some necessary things in that job. While I still wish I hadn’t had to go through all that, I no longer regret the decision.
I still regret not going to Florida for Spring Break when I was in college. But now I understand it wouldn’t have been the magical experience I thought it would be at the time. I still wish I had done it, but as “poor life choices” go, that’s pretty minor.
Beware of revisionist history of the sour grapes variety. Being compassionately honest means accepting that you made some mistakes along the way. Not to deny they were mistakes and not to beat yourself up over them, but so you don’t make similar mistakes in the future.
A few regrets are a good thing
The only person who never makes a mistake is a person who never does anything. If you regret some of the things you did that failed, it means you took risks. If you regret things you did that hurt someone, it means you have a conscience and you learned something from the situation.
If you regret things you didn’t do, it means you were exercising discretion and not mindlessly saying yes to things that may have been harmful.
You never get it all right. Accept that some errors are inevitable… just do your best not to make the same mistake twice.
The best time to plant a tree
A quote of uncertain origin says “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” This may not be an “old Chinese proverb” but it’s still true.
Whatever regrets you have, whatever you wish you had done, here you are. The future is still ahead of you – what do you want to do with it?
I wish I had discovered this Pagan path in my teens, but I started it in my 30s and I’m doing OK with it. I wish I had learned photography earlier in life, but I started getting serious with it around 50, and I’m doing OK with it.
I may still manage to learn Spanish before I die.