Not the world as it was meant to be

It was 1997, and on my first evening in Calcutta (later renamed Kolkata), I walked with an Indian friend through the streets. It was an eye-opening experience.

Families were settling down for the night under flimsy shelters. Parents wrapped babies and little children in sack-like material to insulate them from the cold as they laid them down to sleep on the concrete sidewalks.

I was shocked and disturbed. I asked my Indian friend, ‘How long until these people have a proper home?’

He smiled. It was my first time in India, and my ignorance was obvious. He answered gently but clearly. ‘Alistair, in the sense you mean they will never have a proper home. The parents – like their parents – were born here on the sidewalk, grew up here, as will their children. They will never have any other home.’

Deeply troubled I went back to the villa where I was staying. In the middle of the night I woke suddenly. A storm had broken over the city, and my shutters were banging and I could hear rain pouring down. I was safe, dry, and comfortable, but I knew those parents and their babies were lying out there in the street with nowhere else to go, and no way to get dry until morning when the rain would stop and the sun come out.

Deep in my heart I sensed God saying, ‘This is not how I meant my world to be, and this is not how it has to be’.

A few years later I was in an African country where two liberation movements had fought a brutal civil war. After visiting rural villages, four of us drove for hours on dusty roads back to the capital. Half way there we stopped to stretch our legs. I needed relief of a different kind, and walked back up the road for a little privacy. One of my friends shouted after me, ‘Use the ditch, but don’t go across it into the bushes’. Why not? Because this was Angola, and that land could still be covered in mines.

No wonder, then, that in the early 2000s almost a third of Angolan children died before they were five, and overall life expectancy was less than 40. Not how the world was meant to be.

To the north of Angola is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, another of the world’s poorest nations with many lives lost due to disease, malnutrition and armed combat. I flew into villages in clearings deep in the Congo jungle and along the Congo River. (See also blog ‘We do what we can’, February 27, 2021)

I visited a school in a village, hundreds of miles from any large settlement. At most there were two or three classrooms. Teachers were doing their best for the children. But they had no books and no teaching aids. Just a board and chalk. The pupils sat on planks of wood set on wooden stakes. The desks were the same construction, just with a wider plank. What you wouldn’t realise from my photo is that several seats and desks were broken and the children were holding the planks in place while I took the picture. No school my children attended was like that.

In a settlement by the Congo River I was shown around a hospital. The operating theatre was very basic. The state of the operating table wouldn’t matter to an unconscious patient. But what mattered for the surgeon was that the operating light hadn’t worked for two years and couldn’t be repaired. I asked how they operated with no light. ‘We pull the table near a window and do our best by daylight.’ No operating theatre where I was treated was like that.

I saw an incubator where a tiny, premature baby lay. The incubator looked old, but had to be useful. It wasn’t really. The incubator didn’t work, and couldn’t be repaired. It was only a convenient small place to lay a premature baby. One of my children had jaundice when born. The incubator in which she was put wasn’t like that.

In another Congo hospital, I met a young boy who was seriously malnourished. His grandmother had walked with him through the jungle for three days to get help. No-one knew where his parents were; most likely they’d died. ‘Can you help him?’ I asked a doctor. He shook his head slowly. It was too late to save the boy. All they could do was make him comfortable. None of my children looked like that little boy or was beyond help like him.

I felt distressed taking these photos, and disturbed now just looking at them again. I also feel angry. This is not the world as it was meant to be, and not the world as it has to be.

So, who am I angry at?

At all of us who are complacent while others suffer    I include myself. Every year I give a percentage of my income to alleviate world poverty and for other causes, but I know my lifestyle is one that billions in this world will never have. That troubles me. I know that personal giving by any of us can’t solve world poverty. We could never give enough, and aid alone won’t resolve the complex reasons behind the poverty of many countries. But is it not true that our focus is on ever more comfortable lives for ourselves? How can that be right? I will keep urging myself and others to give careful thought about how we live and how much we spend on ourselves, compared to how much we give so others can at least eat. The measure of caring isn’t pity but what we do for those in need. Mahatma Gandhi said: “Live simply so that others may simply live.” Wise words.

At my own government    Let me explain my point with a little imagination. In your town, six families have lost their main income earner. One parent in each family now holds them together, but they need help. You’re generous, and you promise to support them until the children are older. But a storm blows your roof away. You have money to pay for the roof repair, but the cost has eaten into your capital. You want to replenish your reserves fast, and you do that by cutting the amount of support you give to the already impoverished families. Now they don’t have enough to eat and they can’t pay their bills, but you can rebuild your funds quickly. Their needs were sacrificed for your benefit.

The analogy isn’t perfect (no analogy is) but it’s uncomfortably similar to how the UK government has responded to the financial cost of the Covid-19 virus by cutting the overseas aid budget. The nation was giving 0.7% of national income in aid, but that has now been reduced to 0.5% – a drop of about four million pounds. The government says that because the pandemic damaged the economy, the aid reduction will help restore public finances. So, let’s be clear what that means. We spent more than usual on health care and support for those out of work – which was right to do – and now we’ll restore our national wealth by taking money away from the poorest people in the world. Yes, we’re really doing that. Of course the UK should put its finances in order, but: a) if you look at the big picture, the UK is still among the very wealthy nations of the world; b) it’s hard to see any morality in restoring a strong financial position by making the poor poorer.

At other governments    Poverty has many causes. Historically, much wealth was taken from nations by colonial masters whose goal was to enrich the mother land. Even now, unfair contracts continue to blight some nations as other countries and large corporations want control of their minerals.

But poverty has plenty other causes too: discrimination against ethnic groups; incompetent and unstable governments; wars that kill civilians, devastate crops, and create millions of refugees; poor infrastructure and systems for trade; inadequate education, especially of girls; low provision of healthcare, clean water, safe working environments.

But, unquestionably, corruption is a major cause. In 2020 India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, said ‘dynastic corruption’ was now a major challenge for the country. Where corruption persisted from one generation to the next, the country was hollowed out like the damage of a termite. It’s not just India where corruption is rife. In many places paying a bribe is just a cost of business, or how you get a favourable judgment in court. I’ve seen that most blatantly in Asia and Africa, but I’m not foolish enough to think corruption doesn’t happen in western countries too. Who is it that never benefits when there’s corruption? The poor. Their land is taken, and the affluent thief can pay off the police or judge while the poor farmer has no resources to regain the land. Corruption is a deep-rooted evil across much of the world.

I probably sound angry throughout this blog. I am. This is not how the world was meant to be or needs to be. Nothing described here has to be this way.

If my photographs or anything I’ve written is disturbing, I hope the evidence of desperate poverty moves all of us to make this world better. You may have seen the slogan ‘Keep calm and carry on’. Often that’s good advice. But if our reaction to desperate need in the world is that we do nothing and just ‘carry on’, then literally billions of our fellow human beings will suffer. That cannot be right. That’s not how the world was meant to be.

Blind to what’s obvious

How do we fail to see something that’s completely obvious? Later we’ll say ‘It was staring me in the face. How could I have missed that?’ But we did.

Motorcyclists have died when a car driver pulled out in front of them at a road junction. Afterwards the driver says ‘I just never saw him’. But the rider was there, plainly there.

Most of us miss errors in our writing. After I’ve written this blog, I’ll re-read it two or three times, correcting mistakes or improving sentences. Then I’ll print it out and my wife, Alison, will proof read it for errors and unclear meaning. After that I’ll go through the paper copy line by line, and I’ll find even more mistakes. Finally, all changes made, I’ll read through it one last time. And always – always! – I’ll still find another error. How did I not see that earlier?

In the first example the driver was blind to what he didn’t expect to see – a motorcycle. It was obvious, but he was looking for larger vehicles, not motorbikes. In the second example my eyes see wrongly spelled words on the page but assume they’re correct.

Blindness to what’s obvious is an odd phenomenon. But also a common one.

It’s a kind of blindness which can affect our view of big and small issues.

We’re blind when we don’t want to see what’s there    I’m writing a year and a half after Covid-19 began affecting everyone’s lives significantly. The number of infections and deaths runs into many millions, and most countries have had repeated levels of lockdown. My friend Richard said to me, ‘I’m fed up with lockdowns. I can’t accept another one’. A little impatiently I asked him what that meant – that instead of lockdown he was accepting he might get seriously ill or that he might make others seriously ill? He’s still my friend, but Richard didn’t like my questions. He didn’t want to see the hard reality of a virus we hadn’t overcome and may never wholly overcome.

I met similar defiance on another subject from Paul. He’s so utterly opposed to ideas of global warming or climate change he evangelises denial. He knows the vast majority of scientists argue differently, but he doesn’t believe them. Paul is not a scientist. He’s simply someone who doesn’t want to change his consumerist lifestyle, so prefers not to see truth in the scientists’ research conclusions.

I’ve seen much the same blindness in those who look down on black people as somehow inferior. And in men who can’t see why women would want the opportunities and positions of leadership and influence that they have.

These are not stupid people. But they deny overwhelming scientific or moral evidence and argument. They’re blind to what they don’t want to see.

We’re blind when we don’t recognise what’s there    That’s why the car driver says ‘I never saw the motorcycle’. Because he was looking only for bigger vehicles like cars and buses, he didn’t recognise what was right before him.

The same problem occurs with relationships. I can’t be the only person who’s tried to help a couple save their marriage but privately thought: ‘This couple should never have got married in the first place’. They’re struggling because they were always fundamentally unsuited. Perhaps others saw there would be problems, but the couple didn’t. And now the relationship is in trouble.

There’s an old saying ‘Love is blind’. It can be, but it never should be. People excuse or bypass problems they should recognise as serious. I’ve jotted down the kinds of statements people make, and added my own comments after each.

‘The problems will go away once we’re married.’ [That’s naïve. A wedding service doesn’t magically make deep-rooted problems vanish.]

‘This may be the only chance I’ll ever have to be married. I’m sure it’ll all work out.’ [False optimism can’t justify getting married. Marriage is great, but only between the right people.]

‘I’ll be able to change him once we’re married.’ [There are two problems here: a) it isn’t true; b) while she’s thinking she’ll change him, he may be thinking he’ll change her. Collision ahead.]

‘I really want to have children; nothing else matters.’ [I knew someone who married exactly on that basis. The parents and their children were miserable and damaged.]

‘Everyone thinks we’re a great match; we’ll be fine.’ [Everyone may be saying you’re a great match. But that may be no more than politeness or fear of sounding negative. In any case, they don’t know the inner reality of your relationship.]

‘Perhaps real love will come later.’ [There are marriages where that happens, sometimes in cultures with arranged marriages. But gambling on ‘perhaps’ is a bad bet.]

‘It doesn’t matter that we have different values and goals. All that counts is that we love each other.’ [John Lennon wrote the song ‘All you need is love’ while fascinated by the power of slogans. It became a hit, but that doesn’t prove the slogan is true. Where a couple’s values and goals pull in different directions, love will be under great strain.]

What these small scenarios have in common is a blindness to how things really are. Perhaps all their friends are getting married, so surely they should too. And they convince themselves that marriage will be wonderful while failing to see serious problems which will undermine a wonderful life together.

We’re blind when we don’t care what’s there     Some eat so much they’re seriously obese, ignore their doctor’s warnings, and take years off their life expectancy. Others drink to excess, damaging their liver and family life too. Or they drink and drive, risking death for them and others. Or (going back a few decades) they manufacture cigarettes and deny there’s any proof that smoking harms health. Or career climbers work 18 hours a day, ignoring signs of ulcers or heart irregularities. Or overbearing bosses create a toxic work environment with bullying and threatening behaviour. Or the management of a chemical plant pumps waste into waterways, contaminating drinking water. Or planners and builders pack so many homes into small areas, there’s nowhere for recreation, and cars congest streets which diminishes air quality to levels that damage health. And so on.

Perhaps all of us have our ‘blind spots’ – areas of life we don’t examine much in case we find something that should change but we don’t want to change. It happens at personal levels (such as eating, drinking, driving), management levels (wellbeing of staff or customers), planning and regulatory levels (quality of life issues). We don’t care enough to look closely at what’s happening with ourselves or the lives of others.

Some things are complicated. Losing weight or stopping an addiction isn’t simple for anyone. And planning in an overcrowded city is compromised by the need to house people. But other things aren’t complicated, such as the morality of promoting a lethal product or disposing carcinogenic chemicals recklessly.

At root, there’s a kind of blindness. If we don’t care enough to look, we don’t see the consequences of our actions. But later we regret not putting things right. One man said: ‘I didn’t value my health until I didn’t have it any more’. Exactly. He had been blind to how valuable his health was.

Of course, the challenge with any of these forms of ‘blindness’ is that we don’t realise we’re blind. We think we see the world perfectly clearly.

Two things can change that.

The first is that something shatters our delusion. It could be dramatic like driving straight into the path of a motorcyclist, or a marriage ends, or health breaks down. Or more gentle such as realising we’re out of synch with the views of most people.

The second way to change is by choice. The choice is determining to be open to new ideas or perspectives. Willing to rethink big issues. Willing to view people differently. Willing to change lifestyle. Willing to review the quality of relationships. And so on. It’s taking the risk of seeing truths differently from before. That’s not easy. You might need a real friend to help you, because it may involve accepting being wrong in the past, and rethinking how to live for the future.

But it’s worth it. It could end dangerous blindness in your life.


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To be the best or the very best?

The wording I’d wish to deserve on my gravestone would be: ‘He fulfilled his potential’.

That’s because I’ve always wanted to be the best I can be: as a husband, father, grandfather; as a leader, a preacher, a writer, a student, a golfer. I’ll never be the best in the world, but I want to be the best I can be.

But is that all? Am I being honest? Or is there an unpleasant addition to my ‘be the best I can be’ philosophy? Perhaps the real version is: ‘I want to be the best I can be, and I’d like that to be better than others’. To be better than most fathers, most preachers, most golfers, most writers, and so on. Maybe I’m more competitive than I admit even to myself. Maybe I want to be the best.

If that is what I think – and I’m not sure – it would be naïve. Only in my dreams am I likely to be world leader in anything.

But, not just in dreams, don’t we all compete? Perhaps not to be the best of anyone anywhere, but better than others we know?

  • Haven’t there been times when households competed to be first in the street to own a TV, first with colour TV, first with a video recorder, first with satellite or cable TV?
  • Don’t parents talking at the school gate boast how early their youngster took her first steps, spoke her first words, or how far on she is now with reading?
  • Why are there queues at car dealerships to collect the latest model or show off the newest registration plate? And much longer queues at Apple stores when a new iPhone is launched?
  • Why do people want to wear the latest fashion, or feel embarrassed to appear in out-of-date clothes?

Do any of these things actually matter? For many, they do. People compete for prestige or prominence. And for some the competition to be better than anyone else crosses the line into cheating.

I saw cheating recently on the golf course, when a fellow player nudged his ball forward as he used a coin to mark its place on the green. When he replaced his ball it was closer to the hole. Other golfers have reputations of taking shoe leather shots (secretly kicking their ball out of the rough). Some blatantly miscount the shots they’ve taken, claiming to have hit six when they actually took eight.

That’s amateur stuff. Professionals take their cheating much more seriously.

It happens in sport. Every week a football player will pretend to have been tripped but slow motion replays show no-one touched them. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his world record and gold medal at the 1988 Olympics after he tested positive for anabolic steroids. He was sent home in disgrace. Lance Armstrong won seven consecutive Tour de France bike racing titles between 1998 and 2005. During those years he furiously denied accusations of doping. But in 2012 the US Anti-Doping Agency concluded he’d used illegal drugs throughout his cycling career. At first Armstrong still denied the charges, but the following year publicly admitted the doping.

Plagiarism is such an issue for universities that almost all of them now use software that compares a student’s essay with millions of academic books and journals, and billions of web pages. One student I dealt with had inserted paragraphs of a prominent scholar’s work into his own essay, then claimed he had done so as a tribute to the noted scholar. Not much of a tribute when you make it seem like it’s your own work. There have been cases when politicians and even preachers have been discovered ‘lifting’ material from other authors and including them in their own book.

Some executives have falsified their qualifications to get a job. During the time I lived in Aberdeen the city’s Chief Executive was forced to resign. He had been using professional qualifications after his name, which implied membership of prominent engineering institutions, but was never entitled to do so. I know other cases where a résumé or CV has claimed qualifications which were never attained.

There are countless examples like these. Why do people do it?

The obvious answer in the professional world is because pushing yourself to the top makes you money. Considerable wealth or power can be at stake. Greed makes ethics inconvenient.

But the high levels of sport, politics or academia aren’t the worlds of the vast majority. So, why do ordinary people do almost anything to get ahead of others? What does it matter to have the latest iPhone? Or the best looking garden? Or the tallest child in the class? Or a better university degree than your colleague? And so on.

I see at least three possible reasons why being first matters so much.

Some have an excess sense of self-importance    The world must notice how great they are. I was invited to a gathering at a wealthy businessman’s home. This wasn’t any ordinary home. It was a mansion, a very large mansion. The over-sized double doors led into a tall, elegant entrance hall, beyond which was a wide central area. An open-plan kitchen, oozing granite work tops and high-end appliances was off to one side. The dining room was vast enough to hold the ornate 20-seater table with its Queen Anne legs and matching chairs. But that room’s elegance was outdone by the music room, again open-plan so everyone could see, with gold-coloured harp and Steinway grand piano prominently displayed. There was nothing homely about that house. You wouldn’t kick off your shoes and lounge around, because both your shoes and you would clutter this perfect place. But that home wasn’t designed to be comfortable; it was designed to impress. No-one that evening was to be in any doubt that someone very important lived there.

Most of us can’t match the wealth (or debt) of that house. But maybe we can rise to a super high-res TV, or a cruise to somewhere exotic, or buy a new and lovely car every three years. We’ll find our own way of making a statement: we’re doing well, we’re important, we’re people you should admire.

Of course, none of these trappings prove that. One of Alison’s relatives lived in south of England farming country, and, when Alison was visiting, she’d meet some of the wealthiest landowners in the country. They felt no need to impress. They drove beat-up old Land Rovers, wore unfashionable but practical boots and clothes, and bought their groceries from the local supermarket like everyone else. They were rich enough, important enough and confident enough not to need to flaunt anything.

Some have an underlying low self-esteem    Joe struggles to believe in himself, so tries to prove his worth by being better than others. If Joe can come first in the exam. If Joe can win the half marathon. If Joe can be on TV. If Joe can host important people for dinner. If Joe can get promotion. If Joe can date the girl all his mates wish they were dating. Then – with any of these ‘accomplishments’ – Joe will feel good about himself. Admiration, recognition, achievement above others; these things will elevate him from basement level self-esteem.

Successful people seem full of self-confidence. They’re the go-getters, people with a sure vision for their lives and the drive to take them to the top. But that’s far from universally true. Search the internet and you’ll find countless articles about successful people riddled with self-doubt. Here are just two examples:

  • The American author, John Steinbeck, wrote in his journal: ‘I’ve been fooling myself and other people.’ While writing his novel The Grapes of Wrath he said: ‘Sometimes, I seem to do a little good piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity.’ The Grapes of Wrath helped him win the Pulitzer Prize in 1962.
  • Vincent Van Gogh was a brilliant post-impressionist painter but constantly filled with self-doubt. But that doubt spurred him on to more painting. He said, ‘If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.’*

Self-doubt can kill creativity or performance, but it can also be fuel for achievement because being better than others is the ultimate proof you’re not the low-achiever you feel you are.

Some have few opportunities in one area of life, so strive to be best of all in other areas    My grandfather, John Taylor, was a significant person in east central Scotland. With a friend alongside, he was the first to swim the two mile wide estuary of a deep river with treacherous currents. He was a lay preacher and held senior office in his church, and worked with others to found a nation-wide Christian fellowship for men. He was made a Bailie in his town, meaning he was a civic officer (like a magistrate) in local government. He didn’t have vast authority, but only someone with integrity and held in high regard could be appointed. So, John Taylor was a noted figure in his community. But what work did he do day to day? He oversaw coal deliveries to local homes – totally honourable work, but far from spectacular.

Not everyone can have glamorous or high earning jobs. Life in offices, factories or fields tends to be much the same on Tuesday as it was on Monday, and will be again on Wednesday, and so on. But it motivates some to higher achievements in the rest of their lives. It makes them want to be the best of the best.

So, there are several reasons why people push themselves to be better than others. I have two responses to them.

One, striving to be the best you can be is entirely legitimate. I became an Advanced Driver and later an Advanced Motorcyclist, in each case passing a police-observed test of driving skills well beyond those needed for the government-run test. What motivated me to train and do those tests? It began with a stupid accident. My car was behind another car waiting to turn right. As traffic cleared the one in front moved off. I followed, accelerating through the junction. But the car just ahead of me braked sharply when a pedestrian stepped into the road. I was accelerating from behind, and I crashed into the rear of the car. My speed was still low – no-one was hurt – and the damage was only what my American friends would call a ‘fender bender’. But the accident was clearly my fault. I should have been paying more attention to what was ahead, and keeping further back from the vehicle in front. I was so annoyed with myself I signed up for training as an advanced driver, passed the test, and I’ve never had an accident since. I really wanted to become the best driver I could be.

Being the best you can be in (almost) anything is a good and legitimate ambition. It’s a positive goal that benefits the individual and those around.

But when that healthy ambition turns into an unhealthy competitive desire to be better than anyone else, the problems range from pride through cheating to illegality. The fault is not the desire to be the best you can be, but the desire to be better than everyone else no matter the price. Others get hurt as you push past them. And, since it’s likely you won’t become a world-beater, you’ll feel a failure.

Two, the better goal in life is contentment with who you are, what you have, and what you can do. That’s neither laziness nor complacency. It is about being okay with the person you’ve become and what’s around you, not resenting that you don’t have more or that others do have more.

The Apostle Paul wrote this:

‘I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.’ (Philippians 4:11-13 – NIV)

Paul wasn’t exaggerating about life being hard as well as good. He was opposed in his missionary work, on one occasion beaten and left for dead. He made hazardous journeys around the Mediterranean not knowing where his next meal would come from or where he could spend the night. Companions were not always loyal. There was nothing easy about his life. But he found contentment. He wasn’t driven by greed, or a desire to look important, or a need to be better than others. He was at peace, grateful for what he had. Is that easy? No, certainly not. But Paul found it was possible in God’s strength.

That’s possible for us too. I feel sorry for those who try to make themselves look important. I’m angry with those who cheat in order to come first.

Why do people strive to impress? I’ve listed reasons, but, whatever their motivation, I don’t think those people are happy. Why do people cheat in order to win? They also have reasons, but I can’t understand how they can take pride in achievements they know they didn’t deserve. They can’t be content.

Be the best you can be. That’s a great goal. And then be content. If you can do that, you’ll be happier than all those who used up their years desperately trying to be better than everyone else.


*These examples from

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The American golfer Hale Irwin nearly sank a 20 foot putt in the third round of the 1983 Open Championship, his ball stopping only an inch or two from the hole. Irwin casually swung his putter to tap the ball into the cup. He missed! The ball didn’t miss the hole; Irwin missed the ball. But he’d made a stroke so it counted. In the final analysis that might not have mattered, except Irwin finished the tournament exactly one stroke behind the winner, Tom Watson. If only he’d holed that putt… Irwin played in future years but never won the Championship. He would forever regret his two inch miss.

All of us do things wrong, whether honest mistakes or deliberate actions, and deeply wish we could have that moment over again.

Imagine this scenario. A young man is in love, truly believes he’s met the girl of his dreams and they’ll spend their lives together. But he says something which deeply offends his young lady, so much that she breaks off the relationship. ‘I said something wrong,’ he laments, and longs to go back to yesterday and do everything differently. But he can’t. So now he needs a place to hide away.

You may realise I’ve just described the 1965 Beatles song ‘Yesterday’, voted the best song of the 20th century in a BBC poll. Why so popular? The lyrics aren’t marvellous. But they home in on the human experience of regret. Something happens which should never have happened. We can’t change it and we can’t forget it. And its shadow hangs over us from that day forward.

Before going further, let’s be clear that missing a putt in a golf match – no matter how famous a golf match – is as nothing compared to the human trials and tragedies which leave unbearable regret – things that forever seriously changed our lives or the lives of other people.

What kinds of things create regret like that?

Here are seven examples:

  • Annie delayed getting the lump in her breast checked out. By the time a biopsy was done, she had stage 4 cancer and only a year or two to live.
  • Brody drank too much, then got in his car, failed to stop at a junction, and killed a young, newly married couple.
  • Clara was told her operation was routine, but the surgeon made mistakes and left her unable ever to give birth to a child.
  • Davey knew Danielle liked him, really liked him, but he couldn’t work up the courage to ask her out, and then she fell in love with his best friend and married him. Davey never met another like Danielle.
  • Eva was offered a fabulous promotion, but she had other things going on in her life so said ‘Not now’. No opportunity like that ever came again.
  • Fuller wasn’t a good father to his son – demanding, scolding, pushy. His son left home for university, and then took a job 200 miles from home. Fuller didn’t try to keep in touch, and now they never speak and never visit.
  • Gemma got drunk at an office party. In an alcohol haze what followed was a one-night fling with a colleague. Within days she told her husband. The marriage survived, but became cold and distant.

I’ve imagined every one of these people, but the events are typical of experiences which lead to years of unresolved regret. Something went terribly wrong, and now it can’t be fixed. Perhaps they asked for forgiveness, but it wasn’t given. Perhaps they tried to put the problem right, but only made it worse. ‘If only I hadn’t…’ the person says. Year after year regret eats away at their joy.

There is no guaranteed remedy for the mistakes or wrongs of the past. And some level of regret almost always lingers, even when there’s forgiveness at the human or divine levels.

But some things help, and I hope I’ll outline some of them now.

Never let the regret occur    This seems like perfect but impossible counsel. How often do we see disaster before it happens? Actually, more often than we admit. My friend Ray stopped driving when he was 90. For a few years he’d known his driving wasn’t good, so only drove locally. Then one day he misjudged a bend and bounced up the kerb onto the sidewalk. No-one was there so no-one was hurt. ‘But,’ Ray told me, ‘there could have been a mother and child on that corner, and I would have killed them.’ He sold his car, and never drove again.

It isn’t impossible to avert disaster before it happens. Occasionally we see warning signs, and the wise person acts before there’s something deeply serious to regret.

Regret doesn’t always involve guilt    It was a stormy day, so Sophie was driving her daughter to school. She was doing no more than a modest speed but suddenly a tree fell across the road. With no time to brake, Sophie crashed into the tree. She was fine but her daughter was injured and taken to hospital. She went through two operations, and suffered a lot of pain before eventually recovering. Sophie was tormented with regret. Her girl would never have gone through all that if only she hadn’t taken her on that road at exactly that time… Regret, regret, regret. But Sophie was regretting an event when she did nothing wrong. She wasn’t speeding. She hadn’t taken a notoriously dangerous route. She couldn’t have known a tree would fall. It was an accident. She can regret that it happened – be sad or sorry – but there’s no reason to feel guilty. There was nothing for which she should blame herself.

When we do something foolish or wrong, we regret our guilt. But not everything we regret involves guilt.

But sometimes there is guilt for what happened. How do we deal with regret then?

Face up to your regret    Personally, I don’t always do that. I find it easier to move past regrets rather than face them and identify what I did wrong. Why? Because what happened is a horrible and painful memory, so I don’t want to think about it. But not thinking about it lets it live on, and sometimes grow and become even more painful. If, instead of trying to ignore my regret, I face it honestly and thoughtfully three things can happen:

  • I can forgive myself. First, I need to accept God’s forgiveness, and I can do that. But forgiving myself is a step further. It’s easier to mull over my failings than let them go. In Robert Burns’ poem, Tam O’Shanter, Tam’s wife sits at home waiting for her drunken man to return. Burns writes that she’s ‘Nursing her wrath to keep it warm’. I can be guilty of nursing my failings to keep them warm. But not if I face up to them full-on, confess the wrong I’ve done, and then make a deliberate choice to let it go. If I sidestep my regret, it still has life. If I face it, I can leave it.
  • I may realise my guilt isn’t as bad as I thought. If I’d delivered a poorly prepared sermon, I’d really regret that. The congregation deserved better. But if I think more fully about what happened that week, maybe I’ll understand why that sermon wasn’t my best. Probably the previous days were consumed by human problems and  tragedies – a youth died, a young mum was diagnosed with cancer, a marriage split up, and I’d been in bed for two days with flu. Actually, it was remarkable I’d prepared any sermon for that Sunday. I regret that it was less than ideal, but it happened because that sermon had to be put together at an unusually messy time. Life is messy for all of us, and regret should be diminished by reasonableness.
  • I may see actions I can take to diminish the harm that’s been done. I can’t be the only boss who, in the heat of a pressurised moment, appeared grouchy or spoke harshly to a colleague? And later felt regretful? Life would rush me on to the next thing, but what would stay with me was the regret. It didn’t go away. But, if I stopped and really thought about what I was regretting, I’d realise there were colleagues I should apologise to. An apology isn’t always a cure, but it may diminish a harm done. And the less harm done, the less regret that lives with us.

Be the one who reaches out to heal hurts    Bertha and Bonny are sisters, but they have nothing to do with each other. Listen to Bertha, and Bonny is at fault. Listen to Bonny, and Bertha is at fault. Bertha thinks Bonny said something offensive. Bonny thinks her words were fine but Bertha’s response was offensive. Each is convinced they’re right and the other is wrong. So they’ve had nothing to do with each other for more than 30 years. Yet here’s the odd thing. Each hates the separation and wishes it had never happened. But Bertha thinks Bonny needs to apologise, and, of course, Bonny thinks Bertha needs to apologise. That’s stalemate. Nothing will change, and Bertha and Bonny will go to their graves regretting their separation. That regret doesn’t have to be permanent. But it will be unless one of these sisters swallows her anger and pride and talks to the other. Not to prove she’s right and the other wrong. Just to heal the relationship. That won’t be easy. But Bertha and Bonny may find both of them want reconciliation, and taking slow steps towards each other has at least a chance of healing decades of regret.

It may seem nothing can be done to fix a past wrong. Often that’s not true. But nothing will be fixed until someone takes a step toward healing.

Mistakes made can make you a better person    I watched a TV healthy living programme about heart attacks. It showed a 55-year-old man jogging, and when interviewed he said his heart attack was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Why? ‘Because,’ he said, ‘before then I had an appalling diet, took almost no exercise, became seriously obese, lacked energy, felt dreadful, and then nearly died with a heart attack. But now I eat well, exercise daily, maintain the right weight and have more energy than when I was 20. My life is so much better.’

That man’s story isn’t every person’s story. But it does show that we can turn some negatives to positives in our lives. His near-death didn’t just make him regret, but rethink and change his lifestyle. Regret was replaced with gratitude. When possible, that’s the ideal way out of regret. Recognise what was wrong. Learn from it. Live better.

Live in today    One of the repeated lines in ‘Yesterday’ is ‘Oh, I believe in yesterday’. The singer wishes he could return to yesterday because now he’s just half the man he used to be. But a fixation on yesterday is never good. Brody can’t go back to before he started drinking that fateful night; Fuller can’t get back the childhood years with his son; Gemma can’t return to a time before the office party. Yesterday happened. And horrible as it was, it can’t be changed.

What we can do is live in today. Whatever happened yesterday, today can be a day of good things. The more we find fulfilment now, the more we’re able to move on from the frustration and failure of the past.

It’s not easy. ‘Yesterday’ also has the line ‘There’s a shadow hanging over me’. That’s how regret feels. But shadows don’t last forever. New dreams, new opportunities, new attitudes, new people, new places, new activities, can all make shadows fade. It’s not that we don’t remember yesterday, but ‘yesterday’ doesn’t control us now. Its significance has been replaced by the overwhelmingly better ‘today’.

I have regrets. I wish I’d never put my life in danger running in front of a car when I was five, and getting lost on a mountain because I was ill-equipped, and plenty other things I haven’t (yet) written about. But I hardly ever think about them because I love the life I have now. It’s a good life, a positive life, and I don’t waste it reflecting endlessly on old mistakes. I am where I am, and where I am is a good place. May that be true for you too.


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