I'm going on a retreat with some people I know well, and we plan to spend two days discussing a number of difficult topics. We've done this kind of "work" before, diving deeply into the complex issues of life. Big stuff like why we are each here, what is the purpose of our work, what kind of legacy we hope to leave.
I have agreed to lead a discussion on a topic that most of us don't like to think about all that much. It's about regret. What things in our lives we most regret. In preparing for our retreat I've been doing some thinking on the subject and am reminded of the wisdom that for many of us we don't so much regret things we did...we mostly regret things we didn't do.
In thinking of my post today I focused on conversational regrets: the things we wish we had not said. Perhaps even more important, the things we regret not having said. Let's look at the first one: What things have you said in your life that you would take back, if given the chance? Clearly you can never take back your words, but you can ask forgiveness. Are there conversations in your past in which you said something you have since regretted? It is amazing what can happen if you simply contact the persons involved and tell them how you feel. It is not an easy thing to do. And this is not a text or email conversation. This is a face to face conversation, if possible, but more likely a phone call. Your hand will hesitate before you actually pick up the phone. It may take you a couple of tries. I know because I have done it.
Here's what is likely to happen: You will say something like this: “Hello, George...there's something I've wanted to do for a long time...it's about the time we talked about your son, and I said XXXXX. How I wish I could take that back. It was wrong of me and I am hoping you will forgive me for it. I am sorry." (Note that you do not offer an explanation for your words, not an excuse. It doesn't matter what caused you to say these words. The point is that you said them and are sorry for it. Do not explain yourself. The fact that you accept responsibility for whatever hurt they caused is what is important. And you will dilute the impact, even void it, if you try to explain or excuse yourself. And by all means, don't suggest that the other person is partly responsible as well. It is crucial that you accept full responsibility, no matter what role they may have played in the matter.)
I will bet that there will be silence on the other end of the line, for at least a bit. A pause. And then the response. And I can almost guarantee it will be one of forgiveness. Something like "I have often thought of that too, and am so glad you called. Yes, you are forgiven. I was hurt at the time and would like to put this behind us..."
Or you may get an angry response..."You darn right that was wrong, and I don't think I can ever forgive you." Or, worse, the other person may simply hang up on you. The fact is, though, that regardless of the response you get, the most important thing is that you made the effort to express your sorrow for your mis-spoken words and sincerely requested forgiveness. Believe me, you will feel better no matter what the other person responds.
What about things you wish you had said but never did? There are conversations I wish I had had with my mother and father before they died. With friends before they moved away. With acquaintances who could have used my help and I didn't pick up the cue. These, too, are opportunities for you to free yourself--and the other persons involved--from the yoke of regret. If the person involved is still alive and reachable, then by all means, contact him or her and acknowledge that you wish you had spoken up. Use the same tactic: don't explain or excuse yourself. Take full responsibility for your omission and ask forgiveness. If the person involved is no longer alive, have a conversation in your head with him or her. Maybe make it a special ritual for which you set aside time, sit in a peaceful place, and have the conversation in your head. Assume the response you get is one of forgiveness. Perhaps you may want to make a promise to take a step that would please her if she were here to observe it. Be especially kind to one of his children, or volunteer your time and energy to a cause you know was important to him.
What goes around comes around. Truly. A wise person once told me that one's regrets are a sign of maturity. I believe that. And what better way to let ourselves "grow up" around an issue than to acknowledge that something we said--or didn't say--was wrong or hurtful and that it needs to be acknowledged.
Conversations that acknowledge regret can be among the most important we conduct. I hope you'll try it.