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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