Coming to Terms With Regret
A few years ago, I returned to a choir that had been such a big part of my life for an anniversary concert. I jumped into rehearsals and remained part of the large ensemble. It was sheer joy and all about praising God and honoring my past.
After the concert, a friend I hadn’t seen in a while — and also a former choir member whom I sat next to in rehearsals about fifteen years before — came up to greet me. He had become a successful author and playwright and is someone I greatly admire.
He gave me a hug and said, “It was great to see you up there. You know, back in the day, I thought you had it all and were going to make it big.” When he saw my crestfallen look, he quickly added, “You still could.”
My look of disappointment wasn’t because I still fancied I was going to become some kind of singing star, even though I continue to write and record music. No, that doesn’t happen at my age. My disappointment was in him. Why hadn’t he said that ten or fifteen years before? How was I to know he thought that? He was a respected figure and if he’d told me that when I was at my peak, it might have made a difference, given me a needed boost of confidence and motivation.
As we continued the conversation, he said, “I think you got in your own way.” Oof. It was a short but, for me, significant talk.
It brings me to the topic of regret. Sour grapes.
Don’t get me wrong. I can get down with all these motivational speakers who are constantly telling us to live in gratitude. I can find reasons to be grateful in my life.
But I think that to reach the mountaintop of true, unfettered gratitude, you must first spend time in the valley. You must live in and confront the muck that came from your misguided choices. You must allow yourself to mourn bad luck and timing over which you had no control. Give yourself permission to be angry at those who belittled you and blocked your success in one way or another. If you’ve been around for a while, you’ll see there’s plenty of muck to play in.
We love to read the stories of folks who rose from a hardscrabble childhood to great heights and won Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, Grammys, and Pulitzers. We love those Netflix documentaries about the legends who had been resilient and overcame limitations of class or race or sex, or bad families or spouses, or even debilitating bad reviews. They give the rest of us hope.
And yet, the rich and famous are a minuscule fraction of the artists’ world as a whole. They are not the great artists who end up teaching high school theater in order to have a steady paycheck, even though some may be as good as Al Pacino or Glenn Close. They are not the anonymous artist who painted that gorgeous mural you see under the bridge on your commute home. They are not the unknown potter that created that unique and beautiful mug that you picked up at a yard sale for two bucks. They are not among the thousands who find ways to produce music and films that may never be heard or seen by more than a few hundred people.
There are millions of us who didn’t “make it” in the traditional sense — that is, the American sense, where the values of money and fame trump all others. Are our lives of less value?
Creating a career trajectory that gets you from aspiring amateur to a star with staying power is an art in itself, an art that the vast majority of us never master.
Those of us who didn’t live up to our hopes and potential need to sit with that for a while. Take off the rose-colored glasses.
In the beginning, my ambition was bigger than my talent. I cringe at some of the things I attempted in my twenties and early thirties. But then, even as my talent grew . . .
Why didn’t I push harder to get a good agent or manager? Why did I give up on auditioning? Why did I keep pushing myself in a music community that never embraced me? Why did I stay in New York and not go to L.A., which I visited twice in my fifties and ended up loving it? Why didn’t I write a third book after good reviews on my second one? Why did I not ever know I was handsome until I recently discovered concert footage from twenty years ago and said “Wow” when I saw myself? Why — and this is the toughest one — did I spend so much time on relationships (all kinds of relationships) that didn’t serve me?
These are not fun places to go. It’s not fun to play the game of “What if . . . “ It’s not easy to watch those who leap-frogged over you — some more talented, some not — who are now being recognized in the industry and being rewarded financially.
Somehow, I — we — need to find peace with this. And while few of us can echo Julius Caesar in saying “I came, I saw, I conquered,” we might find satisfaction with “I came, I saw . . . I lived.”
Now that’s true, meditation-worthy gratitude.