One of the great frustrations of life is that you can’t go back and change things. You can decide to act differently from now on, quit a nasty habit, begin volunteering, etc. But, as for looking backwards and thinking, I wonder if I had….it stays just that: wonder. It’s also a practice in futility. You can’t change the past. You can only change your reaction to it or your actions from here on out.
So, what happens when you keep turning to face in that backwards direction? What happens when you start thinking a little too hard about what you wished you had done? First things first, you need to whip yourself around and start focusing on what you can change now. If you’re so unhappy with the past, do something now to make sure you don’t repeat it. There is a significant difference between reflecting and regretting.
There are lots of things you can waste your time regretting: squandered opportunities, wasted money, failed relationships, missed chances, wrong paths, extra slices of cake, late-night Del Taco run, waking up next to a stranger, yelling at your child when you’re grumpy, or, God forbid, something more serious. I have a few late-night Del Taco runs still hanging around the saddlebag areas. They’ve been camped out for years. I can’t do anything about them being there in the first place, but I can decide to evict them. That’s a big decision, but one I probably won’t regret. Twice a week kettle ball class should help me out with that. There are also a few other things I regret that I have trouble letting go. When I got married, I purchased everyone in the wedding party a gift, except for my nephew. I had him on the list; I had just forgotten. He waited and waited to have his name called with a gift and I failed. It still kills me. I went out immediately and got him the gift I had forgotten before and woke him up at midnight to give it to him. I don’t think it bothered him half as much as it had bothered me. But the guilt still wracks my conscience. I feel it in my chest. I can’t change it. But, I make sure that every day he knows how much I love him and I try to show him how much I value him as a human and as my nephew.
From this point all we can do is work on changing who we are so we can avoid making the same mistakes we made in the past. I think the old maxim is true: Regret things you’ve done, not things you haven’t done. I think this is easy enough to live by in your 20’s. Think about it. It’s a classic reason why 18-year-olds are drafted for the army and not 25-year-olds. The less experienced are more willing to go into battle, whereas those who are older usually have college degrees, possibly a wife or a family, and they have additional concerns to consider before storming off into the fray. The same can be applied to everyday scenarios. You’re 18. You’re setting out, you’ve got a bit of experience in the world (though not much and not a lot of true substance), you’re resilient, and frankly, because you’re inexperienced, you’re less afraid. Because you’re less afraid, you’re more willing (though not necessarily more able) to conquer that troll in your path. In your 30’s, a bit of that carefree attitude has been wiped off and now with the experience you’ve got, you’re careful to judge what consequences will be attached to whatever choices you make. Although you are better able to qualify your choices and reasons for said choices, you’re generally more cautious about what you do.
So here’s what we are presented with: there’s change we want to make. We aren’t sure what the risks are, but we know they are there. Because we are more cautious, we are more unwilling to change. Shake that attitude off. 30 may not be the new 20, but there isn’t any reason you should stop working on being the best version of yourself. Change your regrets into your reflections and figure out what you can do to change what you wish you hadn’t done. One important way to know who you want to be is by eliminating who you don’t want to be.
When you turn 40, you may not look back at regret with the things you did, but rather at the things you didn’t do because you were too cautious. I think our 30s are the best time to leap wildly into the unknown simply because you are so much better prepared to land. With great risk, comes great reward and what would all of those “reflections” from our 20s be worth if we squandered them on safety and being ordinary?
With that being said, lately I’ve had the opportunity to look at a few things I didn’t do, but had wanted to. I think it is common practice right before you turn 30. There are a few particular actions I don’t want to take into my 30s, but that’s easy because that involves changing a habit, which is difficult, but not impossible by any means. This particular blog is looking at what I didn’t do when I had the chance to do it and changing what I can to make that brilliant leap.
Did I travel enough?
I have been to 8 or 9 countries and lived abroad for over two years, gaining my citizenship. I’m not sure that it counts as travelling “enough”, but I feel like it’s sufficient to enter into my 30s and definitely into parenthood with the experience I’ve had. Every place is different, naturally, and when you travel, you don’t necessarily need to acclimate yourself to all the differences in the country you’re visiting. You may need to adjust your diet for a while, or wear special clothing, but you pretty much get to remain you. Living abroad means you have to open up who you are and let some other country jumble it all around so that whenever you go home, you’ve got to figure it all out again. That happens sometimes even if you’re not living abroad. My experience living abroad has brought me to a serious crossroads. I can continue forging ahead in the regular way that I always did or I can let the changes in me grow and expand, flourish and catch fire. Did I travel enough? I went so far away from who I was, at some point, I didn’t recognize myself. In that way, I was able to come back and decide which parts of me I wanted back and which parts I was willing to leave behind. Yes, I travelled.
Did I date enough men?
I have a few friends who would laugh at this question if I even thought about answering no. I’m not sure though. I had two long-term boyfriends who ate up a good portion of my 20s and my husband came in and snagged the last 2. The in-between periods were all of 8 months each. Did I fit enough other men into those 16 months to satisfy a lifetime with one man? The truest answer is yes. Although I really liked dating, especially when I was 27 and more or less had my stuff together, I knew enough to recognize that my husband was “the one” when we first met. That’s all dating really is. It’s finding qualities you like, and don’t like in men. More than that, it’s finding deal breakers and deal makers. What are characteristics I would not stand for in a mate? I dated a guy named Gabriel for about 3 weeks. He lied to me about smoking weed. It bothered me more that he lied than the fact that he wanted to smoke (which I was none too thrilled about either). From that moment on, lying became a deal breaker. It’s obvious that it should be, but lots of women put up with it. I dated a Mark who put his career above everything else. And good for him! He’s a Major in the Marines. But, he’s still single and I never wanted to play second fiddle to a job. I dated a great guy right before I met my husband. We were compatible in 9 out of the 10 areas I wanted in a husband. The tenth area was rather important. I wanted a man who shared my religion. I’m Jewish. He was Catholic. That was never going to work. After I dated him, I swore I would only date Jews so as not to confuse my poor little heart. Then my husband stepped into my life, or rather I stepped into his, and we just kind of knew. Did I date enough men? Yes. I found the one my heart was waiting for.
Did I learn enough?
I never finished my Master’s. It’s a long story as to why I’ve written a thesis and finished all the coursework, but still can’t write MA after my name. Actually, it’s not long, so here goes. My advisor got a Fullbright Scholarship and left me in the care of another professor to finish my thesis. I did everything I needed to do, worked and worked for two summers, but apparently I didn’t check in enough. When time came to begin editing my thesis, she told me she’d forgotten about me and had too much to do. Instead of pushing the issue, I swallowed it (a symptom of what was going on in my life at the time). To be honest though, in my heart, I have a Master’s degree. Anything I want to do now career-wise would not be helped by a Master’s degree in Literature. I will not teach again, at any level, and there isn’t much else you can do with it. But I learned. Aside from my actual topic, I learned processes. I learned about organizing material, developing an argument, drawing my own conclusions, increasing my vocabulary, using the arguments of others to work in my favor or using the arguments of others against my detractors. Apart from the Master’s degree, I wish I had gone to a college that offered a better variety of classes. I don’t know anything about archaeology or anthropology. I would have studied Hebrew, but my college never offered it. Thankfully learning doesn’t have to end once you leave college, and I imagine I can still go back to school, or enter into programs where I can learn on my own, without a degree. There are actually programs through MIT where you can study courses and download materials so you can learn on your own and it’s free. It takes diligence, but it’s not impossible. I learned Hebrew without taking a college course. Did I learn enough? Yes, and I learned that we can always learn. There are always possibilities.
Did I read enough?
I have a special philosophy about reading. I feel that a book will call to me when it’s his turn (if we give gender to a book, I suppose it’s a he, although I have no real reason behind it). If I wait too long to begin the book, I sometimes have to put it back on the shelf. I bought a book for a class in 2004 and I just picked it up for the first time in December 2011. I flew through the pages and was eager to pass it on to a friend who met her husband in Vietnam and was getting married to him. There were books that called to me and even though I didn’t know why, I came to understand later as I read the book. I have put books down, because the content was disturbing or the writing was terrible. But, I have forged through books because something felt special to me within them. I am a fanatic reader and I like to read many different types of books. I don’t think the answer to this question will ever be yes. I am not well read in the classics department, and I’ve read far too many Patricia Cornwell novels. I cannot speak intelligently on modern fiction, although I have read some fantastic books by modern authors. I get stuck in the middle of non-fiction books because there is no dialogue and they can literally be put down and picked up when the argument in the book finishes. Did I read enough? No amount will never be enough.
Did I write enough?
I can wholeheartedly say no. This is the question that flung me into this project. For a long time I wanted to write, to tell people I was a writer and to be regarded by those who know me as a writer. I have talent; at least, I’ve been told that I have talent. I love writing. It gives me such a sense of accomplishment. I have tried writing fiction, but I always feel that in the end my stories aren’t compelling and I don’t have enough vision. My non-fiction, what comes from within me in its truest form, is the best I ever do. So I have abandoned (for now) my fictional endeavors and I am focusing one hundred percent on this. It is my dream, it is my goal, it is my passion. Did I write enough? No. But, when I get to 40 and I turn around for that brief moment, I want to be able to say, yes. I wrote enough.
I want this for you as well. Try this as an exercise. Think about being forty, or whatever is your next big 0 milestone. Picture yourself in the middle of a mountain. You’ve just come to a wide ledge on the side and you’re able to look down at the climb you’ve made over the last 10 or so years. What will you have wished you did? What are the things you will be most proud of? What will you want to see?
When you have that list, you have a starting point for how you’re going to begin living your life so you live with less regret and live with a fullness that makes you feel less of a necessity to keep looking back, but rather a drive to keep pushing forward.