The first-ever animal to orbit the Earth and to die in space was a dog named “Laika” (Russian for “Barker”). When the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 in 1957, Laika out-performed two other dogs to earn the dubious honor of participating in this experiment on the impact of spaceflight on living creatures. Laika’s reward was a one-way ticket into space. There were no expectations that she would survive. She didn’t.
Years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the scientists said this: “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”
We all have our regrets- if we are honest, that is. We regret that we did not party more in college, or majored in biology when home economics was our passion. We regret that we married too early. Or that we married the wrong person. Or that we didn’t marry the right person. Or, that we didn’t have children. Or, that we had too many children. Or, that we didn’t spend enough time with our children. The possibilities for lamenting lost opportunities, poor decisions, failures or wrong turns are endless.
I remember sitting with a dear friend just weeks before her death. She told me that “all of her demons” had come back. By that she meant all of her deepest regrets. All of the things that she had held against herself, God or others. Mistakes. Wrongs. Unfulfilled dreams and desires.
She was not alone. A recent study found that when men and women come to the end of their lives, many often have regrets. Typically, the study found, men are more likely to regret vocational choices, and women, relational ones.
The problem with regret is that while it may be entirely justified- we may harbor legitimate gripes about how we have lived our lives or the cards life has dealt us- remorse of this sort doesn’t help us live fully in the present. Sure, to a certain degree regret can teach us something if we let it, whether it be that we not let others live our lives for us, or that we seize opportunities as they come. “Carpe diem!,” as the saying goes.
But some regrets are harder to learn from. Or more paralyzing and incapacitating. We screw up, blow it royally and make a mess of our relationships and never fully recover. Or, someone else screws up royally, makes a mess of our life, and we never fully recover. Or, despite high hopes for a family, we never find the right mate. Or, we are simply unable to have children. In these instances, regret can become a noose around our neck. The more we indulge it, the tighter the noose becomes, sucking the life and possibilities for new life right out of us.
Regret is not just an individual malaise. It is systemic as well. We see it in the church. In remorse over our fractured life together or our inability to be who we were meant to be. In all the times we failed to be a prophetic voice or proclaim the Good News.
We see it on the national scene in the justifiably angry calls of protesters over big bail-outs and extravagant bonuses to America’s richest one percent at the expense of the other 99 percent. Or, in our public lamentation over 9/11 to the degree that it may have been preventable. Or, in our regret, many lost lives and billions of dollars later, that we went to war in Iraq on the basis of a false presumption. These regrets feed an attitude of national, moral and existential despair.
Parker Palmer, in his latest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, describes this despair in American democracy and politics as a kind of “public brokenheartedness.” I identify with Palmer, who has himself suffered several bouts of severe depression: his own, very personal experience of despair finds points of resonance with the existential angst and hunger for healing that we see these days on a national scale. In the disenchantment of “Occupy Wall Street.” In a mother’s grief when the body of her child flies home in solemn military ensemble.
Regret at its core is essentially broken-heartedness. Broken-heartedness over the existential lostness of all humankind. Despair at our inability to break free from the “nothingness” of what we had hoped to become. Or achieve. Or discover. Or believe.
The great nineteenth century, Russian writer, LevTolstoy, in his Confession, much like the writer of Ecclesiastes before him, described his own experience of despair this way: “If I had simply comprehended that life had no meaning, I might have known that calmly- I might have known that that was my fate. But I could not be soothed by that. If I had been like a man living in a forest from which he knew there was no way out, I might have lived; but I was like a man who had lost his way in the forest, who was overcome by terror because he had lost his way, who kept tossing about in his desire to come out on the road, knowing that every step got him only more entangled, and who could not help tossing. That was terrible. And in order to free myself from that terror, I wanted to kill myself…The terror of the darkness was too great, and I wanted as quickly as possible to free myself from it by means of a noose or bullet. It was this feeling that more than anything drew me on toward suicide.”
When we stare into the abyss like Tolstoy did, when we behold our own deep broken-heartedness, about our lives, about the state of our world, about our limitations in fixing our individual and corporate problems, we have two choices. We can either fall apart. (Many of us have.) Or, we can allow our heart “to break open,” as Palmer suggests, spilling out in embodied compassion for the world.
To do this, though, we need more than the grit of our own self-determination. We need a Savior. We need to trade in our own noose of regret for One whose “yoke is easy and burden light” (Matthew 11:30). We need to ask for His help.
“One nation under God” goes the pledge of allegiance. What if we actually believed it? How would we live? How might we learn from our regrets, as opposed to letting them serve as an easy excuse for cynicism and disengagement from the world?
Because apart from the grace of God our lives really do dance on the edge of despair. But in Jesus, there is hope. Even when the noose is in our hands, we can know that Jesus holds the other end of it. He will never let us go. Just as I believe He never let Laika go, either.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s “5 Ways to Tame the Animal of Regret.”