- by Toni Burns
On December 2, 1979, Erma Bombeck penned a column titled, “If I Had My Life to Live Over.” The piece is often misquoted as having been written after she discovered she had cancer, though it was actually written seventeen years before she passed away - not of cancer, but of complications following a kidney transplant. Does that negate the humor and touching insight because it came from a healthy 52 year old, rather than a dying 69 year old? No. My only disquiet refers to the title:
If I Had My Life to Live Over
How often do we hear these words? How often do we say them? Why? Is your life over? If you’re asking, then you are clearly still breathing, and should understand that wishing for things that cannot be changed is wasting that breath. There are no do-overs or reset buttons for the past. What’s done is done. The beauty of that is, even though we may not be able to take things back, we can try to amend them moving forward, and in so doing, our lives and our selves become nearer what we want them to be. Additionally, this amazing gray matter between our ears allows us to learn from those prior mistakes and help us avoid them in the future.
Multiple studies point to the fact that our “shouldn’t have” regrets - you know, the stupid things we’ve done - tend to fade from memory quickly. And I do mean quickly, within a couple of weeks. Granted, this depends on the level of foolhardiness and who might have been affected emotionally or physically by our boneheaded moves, but most of us seem able to fairly quickly accept that mistakes are simply part of being human. They are such an integral part of our growth and learning, in fact, that in attempting to create artificial intelligence that performs more like our own brains, AI now employs them too. Truly! Engineers are creating machines that learn from their experiences, from their mistakes and successes alike, and this programming is key to evolving artificial intelligence.
More importantly, those same studies show that the regrets that linger for years or lifetimes aren’t over things we’ve done, but what we’ve left undone, the opportunities we didn’t take and the adventures we never pursued. I don’t know if AI minds are capable of spending the same time and effort on contemplating or regretting a past they cannot change as many of us seem to, or if any computer geeks out there have written a code for, as my dad liked to say, “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” but humans have certainly embedded that code deeply into our own programming.
Second-guessing, regretting, and wishing we would have done things differently often leads us to search for insights outside of ourselves. This may also be why there are so many “expert” articles about relationships - what is supposed to work and what is supposed to be their death knell. We hope to learn from other’s mistakes to avoid making them ourselves. Yet, everyone’s lives and loves are unique; no two are precisely the same. Reading other people’s experiences and stories might offer oblique insights on how to improve our own lives and relationships, but they don’t give us a paint by numbers picture, despite the preponderance of “10 Easy Steps to A Perfect Anything” articles.
Many couples we have visited on Journeys to Love have spoken of past mistakes in their lives and relationships. Affairs, substance abuse, crimes, and violence broke some and strengthened others, and on occasions, both. For instance, we shared time with a couple in Evergreen, Montana whose past mistakes first tore them apart and then led them back to each other.
Baron and Luwanna had a fiery relationship. She was immature and he was angry. This sparked a passion that created a deep love and also spawned sometimes-violent arguments and fights. Dishes, furniture, windows, emotions, and trust were all broken. After ten tumultuous years, their marriage ended in divorce. Many couples would have moved apart, leading their separate lives, with one or the other maybe seeing the kids on weekends and holidays. But Luwanna and Baron are different. Their deep love extended to their children, so when Baron injured his back, Luwanna accepted him back into their home, not as a husband, but as the father of their children. As Luwanna explained, “we [with her roommate at the time] took care of Baron and he took care of our kids.” For six years, Baron lived in the home, taking care of the children, finding his faith, and clawing his way out of his previously destructive lifestyle. Luwanna went to college, worked, and matured. When they decided to marry again, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses, but through a great deal of hard work, love and faith, they created a new and knowing relationship, rising from the ashes of their past into something healthy, forgiving, and committed. Fourteen years later, their second marriage to one another continues to grow, cultivated by a choice to love each other every day. Theirs is a story of change and redemption.
Baron and Luwanna could have spent their lives regretting the pain they had caused each other and their children. But what’s done is done; it cannot be changed by regrets or wishes. So, they chose instead to make it right by moving forward and not dwelling on what they could have or should have done differently. They didn’t leave undone the things they could change in their lives. Like fire tempers steel, and walking through Hell creates calluses on the soles of our feet, Baron and Luwanna’s relationship is now stronger - not despite what they endured together, but because of it. Having experienced the worst in a relationship and in one other, they are able to recognize and appreciate the best.
Mistakes are an integral part of who we are. Withering with regret or growing through learning from them is our choice. The key is, when we ask, “If I Had My Life to Live Over,” we must reach, not to fix things already done and past, but to use our experience to achieve the things that are still left for us to do. It is never too late so long as we draw breath together, because that means we are still sharing this life, and the hope it offers. The past is done, there is no changing that. But, if we embrace past mistakes as parts of who we are, and decide to start right here, right now, to change our present, in the end, we’ll know: My life was imperfect and wonderful. It was good. It was mine.
And it was enough.