“What convictions survive into dotage?” asks the main character in Jane Gardam’s book, Old Filth, surely a question worthy of a blog devoted to retirement and aging. When I ask myself this question, I hear my stepfather expounding on one of his own favorite convictions—that most people are afraid and lack the courage to look hard at themselves, to admit their failures. On the face of it, this appears a wise and reasonable caution, and as a young idealistic girl who wanted to be a person of courage, I grabbed on and internalized this notion, not realizing how harmful constant self-criticism would be.
Focusing on my failures assumed the negative, that I had failed in some way, even when a different perspective might have pointed out that I had also succeeded in another way, thereby polarizing the outcome. It was either a success or a failure; there was nothing in between or a mix of results.
Casting a critical eye, which I took to be a brave me facing my deficiencies, led to many dark nights of looking back with regrets. But Parker Palmer points out “the past isn’t fixed and frozen the way we think it is. Its meaning can change as time unfolds, if we pay attention.”
My second husband, Gary Stout, loved to go to the burning bowl service at Unity church on New Year’s Eve. If you are not familiar with a burning bowl ceremony, what happens is that you write something that you want to let go of on a piece of paper and put it into a bowl where it gets burned—presto, you are done with it, ready to move on and stop fretting—notice how fretting rhymes with regretting? Gary and I also freely told each other what we thought the other person ought to let go of—ouch! It made for a lively New Year’s Eve.
So, should we face our regrets about our failures and flagellate ourselves endlessly, as my step-father maintained; let go and burn them away in a burning bowl ceremony; or, as Palmer suggests—reframe them? In the spirit of growing older and wiser, as a start, I suggest we reframe them.
My choice to reframe leads me to a highly personal story, one that I hesitate to share, but acknowledging that one way to reframe regrets is to take their power away by telling their story.
A regret I’ve struggled with for years is that I was a failure in my professorial career. I started out, as a new professor at age 50 at the University of Utah, filled with ambition, ready to set the world on fire. Instead, about a year after I arrived, my world was set on fire when my new husband, Gary Stout, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given about a year to live. I supported him, loved him with all I had, and watched him die over the next year.
His death flattened me, crushed me, rendered my ambition lifeless. The belief that I could do work that would improve schooling for the children I so had wanted to serve decayed into a hopeless cynicism. Except for a couple of bright moments, I never really got going in the traditional professor role.
In addition to being flattened, I had my stepfather’s voice, my “conviction” that I had to tell myself the truth, that I was a big fat failure. As you can guess, this truth did not have the effect of lifting me out of my despair, it only deepened it.
Then one day, another voice clamored to be heard, asking me what else I had done in my twenty years of failure. I believe I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, when I had this breakthrough. I made a list of all the other things I had done in the twenty years, deciding I would subtract my failures from this list. It was a long list—I now have it posted near my desk. It includes such things as reading great books, hanging out with loved friends, seeing my children grow into fine adults, grandchildren, a couple of flings, travel, commitment to teaching, helping students achieve their dreams. . . and so on.
Not a bad way to spend twenty years, I realized. Better yet, I had told myself the truth, looked hard at myself. Palmer says, “regret shuts life down.” I would add that it also shuts memory down, freezes it on what didn’t work instead of opening us to what did.
Ocean Vuong, in his magnificent book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, says:
History moves in a spiral, not the line we’ve come to expect. . . the past never a fixed and dormant landscape but one that is reseen. Whether we want to or not, we are traveling in a spiral, we are creating something new from what is gone (pgs. 27-28).
I’ve come to believe that to make sense of my life and my past I need to ignore the harsh voice I adopted from my stepfather and instead to not only reframe but to look again with new eyes, eyes that refuse to label good or bad, success or failure, eyes that are willing to “create something new from what is gone” by seeing the nuance and looking anew over and over. I don’t mean the cliched “Everything happens for a reason,” but rather a willingness to be kind to myself and my past.
Which brings me to New Year’s resolutions, which I love—and I’m not talking about diet and exercise. I’m talking about resolutions that open life up, refresh it, if you will. This year I’m resolving to get passionate about making time to be at peace—maybe twenty minutes a day of meditating, doing a full body scan, deep breathing, or something like that. All this, of course, is about living in gentle kindness with myself, seeing those spiraling memories that can dominate growing older with kind and gentle eyes. So, be it resolved—Karen Storm will make time for peace and be kinder to herself in 2020. May such kindness last forever. Happy New Year!