Etch a Sketch, the trusty toy you snatched from your sister to ruin the shape she just spent 40 minutes crafting, was brilliant long before the Ipad was even a twinkle in Steve Job’s eye. Now you can put an Etch a Sketch case on your Ipad to make it look like a toy, proving once and for all the preeminence of “The Etch”.
Long live Etch a Sketch, the timeless wonder, and low tech gadget for wiping the slate clean. It is also the symbol du jour (well at least a recent jour) of a fickle political system, where the values of politicians are as malleable and meaningless as a doodle on a pad. Shake it hard enough and it loses all substance. Democracy has degenerated to a choice between My Little Phoney and Super PACman. But that’s another story.
Think about Etch a Sketch from a personal perspective. Some things are easy to erase; like words in a document, or a piece of paper that you burn. But haunting memories and lingering regrets are much more stubborn.
There are things that happened in the past and no matter how hard you shake your head you can’t undo them and the memory remains. There are regrets; things you knew you could do but didn’t, and things you wish you didn’t do but did. Regret is a stubborn stain, annoying like nails on a chalkboard, infiltrating your memory like a dripping tap.
I wish that no one had to live with regrets, but suspect that we ALL do to some extent. Regrets come in all shapes and sizes. As a parent who is about to send his first son off to College, I am both incredibly proud of him and at the same time regretful that we didn’t spend more time, share more experiences, enjoy every moment we could. I wish that I had been a better Dad and in some ways wish I could start over. As a son of aging parents who live on the other side of the world, I regret not living near them in their twilight years. I regret my kids not living near their cousins and grandparents. I sometimes wish I’d played football after high school and often wish I’d kept playing the piano. Just to name a few of my regrets.
Times of major change, health crises and near death experiences are some of the times we tend to reflect on life, realize times in the past when we were neglectful of our priorities and commit to living differently.
What’s your relationship with regret? Even Frank Sinatra had regrets, just a few. What are your lingering regrets?
As the playwright Arthur Miller said,
Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.
Bronnie Ware is a nurse who worked for years in palliative care. She wrote about the most common death bed regrets. Incidentally, the most common death bed regret is NOT wishing you had a more comfortable bed. These are the 5 most common regrets-
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
It’s a powerful list. Point 5 is fascinating. I wish I LET myself be happier. Happiness is partly a choice to accept what you can’t control and take control of what you can. You can’t control everything that happens to you, but you can always control your response to what happens to you. This sense of power and freedom to choose is the basis for happiness.
It has become a bit of a cliché to say that you should live ONLY in the present. Any mention of the past is looked down on. From one perspective this is true. This is the only moment that exists, the only opportunity you have to make empowering choices. The problem is that our relationship with the past is mostly unconscious. Even if we SAY we are fully in the present, we are often dressed in clothes from the past, likely carrying baggage from the past. We wheel the baggage tagged regret behind us, not knowing why we feel heavy or burdened. Who’s to say what physical and mental disease we suffer because of the baggage we haul around!
Memories and regrets circle around the carousel of our consciousness like unclaimed baggage. If the baggage is not named, addressed and claimed, it can’t be healed and transformed. Sometimes we mistake our baggage for someone else’s and ignore it. Sometimes we wish we could take someone else’s baggage; the luggage is always cooler on the other side of the carousel.
Denying the past in the guise of living in the present is not truly living in the present. It is hiding in the present. I’d like to see more people visit the part of the mind that looks like O’Hare airport at Thanksgiving and claim the lost, hidden and suppressed baggage that weighs you down. This is the true arrival lounge for a full engagement in the present.
Regret has received a bad rap. We look down on it; even regret it you might say. We forget that regret can be powerful when you don’t wallow in it. It’s part of the reality check that brings you back down to earth, often the first step to acceptance. I don’t know about you but when I line up at Air Somebodyorother’s lost baggage desk, I treat the person behind the counter as a magician who could summon my bags for me if she really wanted to and is actually choosing to ruin my day. “Where are my bags?” She looks back and says, “Somewhere between Sydney and Chicago most likely.” We do a little passive aggressive dance before I finally ACCEPT the reality of the situation and drive home (with no toothbrush and deodorant).
We all need a little reality check from time to time and regret can take us there. It’s like the scene in the movie, Juno, about teen pregnancy. Juno talks to a store cashier, played by Rainn Wilson, about her positive pregnancy test.
Juno: That little pink plus sign is so unholy.
Rollo: That ain’t no etch a sketch. This is one doodle that can’t be un-did home skillet.
Events from the past can’t be undone. What happened, happened. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. A healed memory is a transformed memory, a reframed belief, a mindful thought, a chosen action. You don’t have to forget the past AND you don’t have to be ruled by the past.
It’s worthwhile to spend SOME time thinking about the past. That’s how we learn and understand why things happened the way they happened. How do you know when your regret has become a problem? When you can’t shake it. When it begins to take over your waking and sleeping life. When you feel powerless to make different choices now. This is no way to live, in fact it is barely even being alive at all.
When regret is ruling your life, you know that it’s time to change the story you are telling about past events; change what you are making them mean. It’s with the story that you get to start over like an etch a sketch. It’s the messages that fill your mind that can be transformed. You can start over when you shake out the cobwebs of self loathing and allow yourself a clean slate to build the thoughts, actions and life you want NOW.
Remember that the past helps to make you who you are, but you are MORE than your past. You are here NOW with incredible power to choose a life that you can look back on with great pride and satisfaction.
Try these words from Maya Angelou as a mantra,
I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.
This is part of a series on healing the past. In the next articles I go more deeply into healing regrets so that you can live the life that is always available to you if you are willing to name, claim and reframe stories from the past into the most powerful and compelling script ever written. Part two unmasks regret’s assumpti0ns. Part three looks at the power of imagination to change the future.