It was my profound privilege and pleasure to claim as my dear friend the late, great James Flynn, professor emeritus of English at Western Kentucky University. After a long battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Jim died in December 2014.
All of us know that our lives will someday end. While battling leukemia, Jim knew it far better than most. Jim was always very gracious, kind, and thoughtful. During those last few precious years of his life, Jim was especially thoughtful and nice.
During that time, we chatted via email almost daily. We talked about everything under the sun, including the topic of regrets.
Jim had a lovely wife and family, a long and distinguished academic career, a beautiful home in Bowling Green, and he had frequently traveled abroad. In many ways, his life seemed ideal. And yet Jim admitted that he had a few regrets. Jim said, “Any thoughtful person who has lived will have regrets.”
Indeed, I have gone through periods when I was consumed by regrets and what-if doubts. After my parents died, I deeply regretted not having done more to let them know I loved them while they were still alive. After I got married (a second time), I regretted not dating more when I was single. After I finally got sober for good, I regretted all the years when I drank too much and smoked.
And then there were the what-if doubts. What if I had stayed in college? What if I had married a different person? What if I had never joined the Army? What if I had not moved to Grayson County? What if I had done this or done that?
Sometimes when looking back on my life, it seems I zigged when I should have zagged. Sometimes it seems I made so many wrong turns during the course of my life, my “true self” became hopelessly lost, and the person I am now is a “false self”—not who I’m supposed to be, not who I really am.
In the Harvard Business Review (12/21/2016), “Make Peace With Your Unlived Life,” Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries writes: “We all have a silent side to us; opportunities not taken, feelings never expressed. It’s important not to dwell on what could have been but also not to ignore those traits that make us who we are.
“The idea of a ‘true self’ and a ‘false’ or ‘shadow’ self has long preoccupied psychologists. For example, Carl Jung introduced the notion of the shadow side of our personality. He viewed ‘the shadow’ as our unknown, dark side—made up of the primitive, negative, socially depreciated human emotions such as sexuality, striving for power, selfishness, greed, envy, jealousy, and anger. But although the shadow personifies everything that we fear, and therefore refuse to acknowledge, it remains a part of us....
“Donald Winnicott elaborated on the idea of the ‘true self’ and ‘false self.’ He explained that beginning in infancy, all of us, in response to perceived threats to our well-being, develop a defensive structure that may evolve into a ‘false self.’ Complying with our parents’ desires, we may repress our own desires, not actualizing what we really like to do...But this acquiescence to the wishes of others is an emotional lie. It comes at the price of suppressing our own needs. In our efforts to please others, we hide and deny our ‘true self,’ which in turn leads to self-estrangement....
“But learning to sort out our inner demons can be liberating. Questioning, reflecting, and having meaningful conversations with important people in our lives can help us come to terms with our shadow sides and create the rapprochement needed between our ‘false’ and ‘true’ selves. To do this, we have to figure out how to accept what we learn about ourselves without judgment. And to do that, we must approach self-knowledge with curiosity, as if it were a fascinating adventure — an exploration of the riches contained in this previously unknown world inside the self.”
I’ve spent many decades sorting out my “inner demons.” Each of my dozen or so novels has been an exercise in self-discovery, catharsis, and sometimes exorcism. I have lived vicariously through my fictional characters, at times as a hero, at times as a villain—striving always to reconcile the conflicts and differences between my innermost “true self” and my everyday “false self” I present to the world.
My creative writing has helped me become a better person. My inner demons don’t torment me much these days. Like me, they have grown old and fat and lazy. More importantly, I have learned to first examine, and then let go of my regrets.
In “How to Let Go of Your Regrets,” blogger Mark Manson writes, “Regret is a form of self-hatred. If who you are today is a culmination of all of the acts that have led up to this moment, then the rejection of some past act is therefore a rejection of some part of you in this moment. Hating some part of yourself in the present messes you up psychologically. But hating a part of your past is not much different. It harbors shame and resentment. It inculcates self-loathing. And it makes you a real drag at parties, metaphorical and otherwise.
“But the way to get over regret is not to ignore it. It’s to push through it. It’s to engage that former self, to talk to them directly and understand why they did what they did. It’s to sympathize with that former self, to care for them, and ultimately, to forgive them.
“Learning from our mistakes is such a fundamental component of not being a [terrible] person, that I don’t even know where to start. But let’s put it this way: if you do something wrong, but you learn from it, then suddenly that mistake becomes helpful. Developing a habit of learning from our failures is like this magical elixir that transmutes all of the embarrassing cringey [bad stuff] of our lives into making us better. And while that might not remove all our negative feelings, it certainly prevents things from getting worse.
“Regret serves an adaptive purpose. It can help us or hurt us. When we feel regret, we can either wallow in our past mistakes or we can take steps to ensure we don’t repeat our past mistakes.”
I will readily admit that I’ve done some pretty terrible things in my life. Looking back on those things used to fill me with apoplectic shame and self-loathing. Only by facing up to those things was I able to forgive myself and move on.
In “Let Go of Past Mistakes: 6 Steps To Forgiving Yourself,” Cylon George writes: “Joseph Campbell once said, ‘The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.’ So be who you are, not who you used to be. Celebrate who you have become in spite of, or even because of, your past mistakes.
“You are worthy of your own love and forgiveness. Believe it with every fiber of your being.”
Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.