“Regrets, I’ve had a few,” says the lyric of a popular song sung by Frank Sinatra, “But then again, too few to mention.”1
But by the time we reach our ‘golden years’, many of us do have regrets. And though we may not mention them, they become part of the fabric of our being.
Everyone’s experiences are different, but studies show that the regrets of seniors often break down to a few select areas.
Worrying About What Might Happen
Unnecessary worry makes the top list of many people. Too often, we spend large parts of our lives – even weeks or months – worrying about things that never come to pass.
- My kid just shoplifted. What if he becomes a criminal?
- My husband is sick. How will I go on if he dies?
- I messed up on the job. What if I get fired?
In each of these situations, there is a reason to be concerned about the outcome. But all too often, we spend inordinate amounts of time and mental stress magnifying a slight possibility into a crisis. In every life, people make mistakes. They get sick. Their performance is less than they are usually capable of.
But also in every life, most of these situations work themselves out with little or no long term consequences. Even if things don’t work out as one hopes, that result won’t be changed by worrying about it. It is best to take life a day at a time and deal with whatever comes your way – but not until it does come your way.
Caring Too Much About What Others Think
Of course, we all want and need friends, and we want them to like us. But many of us waste our commitment to ourselves by trying to conform to what we see as others’ expectations of us.
Certainly, at work there are rules and norms which need to be followed. Likewise, we should observe certain proprieties in our personal life. But too often, we let the judgment of others dictate our happiness. And too often, our perception of what might happen to our friendships if we don’t bow to others’ expectations is not valid.
Several years ago, I heard a comment which has remained with me:
“People spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.”
Care about the feelings and impressions of others about you, but don’t let it overwhelm your thinking and action.
Too Little Quality Time with Loved Ones
I was guilty of this when my family was young. I had a job that I enjoyed but which required me to work shifts and sometime long hours. I often came home tired and sometimes didn’t make time to be with my wife and kids. Even though they really wanted only a relatively small amount of attention, I wasn’t always ‘there’ for them.
Like many grandparents who let work and other pursuits detract from ‘family time’ when they were younger, I learned enough that I now devote time to my grandson every day. But it also reminds me every day that I regret not doing the same for my kids when they were young.
Not Being Open About Our Feelings
This goes hand in hand with spending quality time with loved ones. It is also very much the bane of many older men. We were raised with the mandate to maintain a ‘stiff upper lip’ – to withhold emotional expression. Men of my generation have seen marriages suffer and even end because they had trouble simply saying “I love you” to those close to them.
My own father worked very hard to provide for our family. Yet I knew he cared because he took time to teach me how to do different things. More importantly, he taught me the resourcefulness to figure out things on my own. But one thing was always missing – a simple expression of feelings. I never saw my father cry. And he only said the words “I love you” once to me – when he was 81 years old and two days from the end of his life.
Yet even with that experience, not uncommon to those of my generation, we haven’t always been forthcoming with our feelings either. And most of us regret that now.
Not Traveling Enough
There is so much to see in the world. But often, we put it off until 1) we can afford it, 2) the kids are grown, 3) we are retired and “have the time” or 4) we need new kitchen cabinets (or whatever).
But most people, when they become seniors, express huge regrets over not getting out and seeing the world. All too often, by the time we are retired, the kids are grown, we have a little more financial stability, and we don’t feel the need to replace some household item that works well enough, our health won’t permit us to ‘see the world.’
I’ve been fortunate to have visited sites in all the lower 48 states and several foreign countries. But I know I could have done more, and regret that I didn’t. Fortunately, for me and my wife, our health is good. We had a wonderful time in Europe a few years ago, and plan to go back.
Not Taking Enough Career Chances
People of my generation were raised with the admonition to “get a good job and hang on to it.” This came from parents who had experienced the Great Depression – people who feared any possibility of returning to the destitution they had known as kids.
But following that admonition blindly deprived many of us with the opportunity to expand our professional horizons. The fear of failure – engrained in us by well-meaning parents – kept us from ‘reaching for the brass ring.’ And the irony is that our parents didn’t ‘fail.’ They suffered because of global economic excesses far out of their control.
In my lifetime, I’ve passed up several opportunities to move in a different direction with my life. But in almost every situation, I chose the ‘safe’ path of staying with the familiar. I managed to reach a pinnacle of my profession and from that, I gained confidence to try several other avocations. But I was in my early 50s when that began.
Experts tell us that people are more likely to regret not making a career move than they are to have tried and had it not work out as well as they planned.
But What to Do Now?
Obviously, we can’t go back and relive our lives. But if it’s not too late – a loved one has passed on, for example – we can try to make amends. The power of a simple but sincere “I’m sorry” can be amazing.
“Better late than never” is something to consider. Take that long-put-off trip to Fiji. Take a drive to someplace in the United States you’ve always talked about visiting. Fix a candlelight dinner for someone dear to you – the kind of dinner you fixed or took her out for when you were wooing her and have rarely done since. Pick up your phone and call that sibling or child that you haven’t spoken to for months or years.
None of these will completely fix those mistakes of our lives – our regrets. And some regrets can no longer be ‘fixed.’ We just have to live with those.