Regrets and grief can plague us at any time of the year. But for some individuals, the holidays are a time when regrets are easy to recall and often hard to dismiss. At this time when people around us appear happy and full of joy, grief can suddenly arise in our souls.
For too many, the darkness of the coming winter takes on personal overtones.
We may have lost a loved one and feel that emptiness deep in our being. Broken relationships or health challenges can be exacerbated in a season when society calls out for gaiety. Those seeking employment see the over-the-top consumerism of the holidays while they wonder where they’ll find next month’s rent. Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses can lead to an increase in suffering and grief because of the dissonance between one’s life and what one sees out in community.
I’ll be the first to admit that I can struggle to get past the regrets in my life. Likewise, I find that grief is an all-too-familiar response to the sorrows of our times. As we near the darkness of the winter solstice, I’ve been thinking about ways to live in order to emerge on the other side of regret and grief. To live with hope.
Let’s begin with regrets.
Virtually everyone has regrets. Even Frank Sinatra, although his were too few to mention. Edith Piaf, the famous French singer who sang, “Non, je ne regrette rien” (I have no regrets), may be one of the few to realize how to just live in the moment.
We should all be so lucky. Instead, too often we blame ourselves, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow over what might have been. That’s the classic definition of regret.
My regrets tend to congregate around goals not achieved through fear of failure. Corners cut when a more thorough approach was required. Relationships not built. Relationships not maintained. Acceptance of mediocrity when the occasion called for work of distinction.
Studies show that there are gender differences in the ways we experience regret. Perhaps your regrets are similar to mine; or, you may face different concerns and challenges.
To add to our personal challenges, I—like many of my fellow citizens—head into this particular winter with some sense of dread, regret for years of complacency in the face of the growing authoritarianism in our government, and grief about life ahead. As the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, said so eloquently last Sunday during his sermon at the Washington National Cathedral, the cries that we hear in the politics of the U.S.; in the street demonstrations in Hong Kong; and in elections from the U.K. to Sri Lanka, all echo the ancient cry of John the Baptist: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?”
There’s certainly dread, regret, and grief in those cries, but there is also hope. We are all looking for hope.
Bishop Curry phrased it as, “Dare we hope that this world will be a world where somehow we learn how to lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, and study war no more? Dare we hope that every man, woman, and child, everyone, will be treated as a child of God?” I would ask, dare we hope that we can pull ourselves out of the morass of our current political climate of lies, fear, and hatred and use this experience to grow closer to our ideals as a nation?
Regret and grief are very real. But there are ways to address the disconnect between our suffering and the hope and joy of the season.
For those able to step aside and see the situation through less emotional eyes, there can be value in how regret can lead to corrective action. In those instances, I try to think of life more as a journey and past decisions and losses as educational lessons. Likewise, taking actions in response to our current political upheaval has been shown to move people from grief and dread to optimism.
In my extended family, there are both mental health professionals and individuals who suffer from mental health problems. I have seen the value that comes from seeking and receiving professional treatment to address life’s challenges.
Spiritual and faith communities have also recognized they can play a role in the healing process, especially during this season. St. Albans Episcopal parish in D.C. held its annual Blue Christmas liturgy last week to acknowledge the realities of all our feelings in challenging days. Personally, I found that several phrases in the well-known and well-loved Night Prayer from the New Zealand Prayer Book—which was used to close that liturgy—spoke of ways both within and beyond the Christian tradition to respond to my regrets and grief. It begins with,
Lord, it is night. The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.
I find that night is an especially difficult time to hold back the flood of thoughts around what could have been as well as concerns over the challenges ahead. Yet, the night can also be a time to still your mind. Or it can if we cut off our electronics, disengage with social media, and do something to slow the thoughts racing through our head. Reading can be a source of balm. Slowing down the brain may come as a result of a prayer to whoever or whatever you believe created the universe. Or it may be as simple as focusing on your breath to calm mind, body, and spirit.
The prayer continues.
It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.
These two sentences spoke directly to me. First came the recognition that our days are long and our work often tiresome. Even work that we enjoy. Then, acknowledgement is followed by the recognition of reality: what has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done. We’ve had our successes, failed, heard the accolades for our work, battled our demons. It is what it is. Now, let it be.
So easy to say. So hard to do.
But as one expert suggests, think about “what you would say to a loved one in the same situation to make them feel better. Most people have an easier time forgiving others than themselves.” We need to find a way to forgive ourselves in letting the past actions remain in the past.
The next two phrases of the Night Prayer call us to use the darkness and quiet as means to rest our fears in what’s beyond us.
The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.
To seek a quietness in the creator, or in the vastness of the universe, is to allow it to enfold us and think beyond ourselves to those we love and to those “who have no peace.” Taking our thoughts beyond ourselves to others gives us a sense of perspective.
The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
Night leads to dawn and a new day, where new possibilities await. It will be a day different from the one just completed. And we can begin anew.
Hope, grounded in memory, remains.
More to come…
Installment #17 of The Gap Year Chronicles.