A few days ago I spent a couple of hours cleaning off my desk and going through some piles of stuff that needed to be filed. It was a task I took on as part of a creative focus workshop (called, conveniently, the Creative Focus Workshop) and it was an exercise in “closing loops” – things that are on my continuous to-do list and keeping my mind cluttered to the point of distraction from my desired work.
So, as I sorted the piles I found an envelope that held my headshots, taken when I was 23 or 24, living in Dallas, dreaming of being an actress. I’d been in several local productions, to nice reviews, but was working full-time and sharing an apartment with my mom. I finally met with a talent agency, not because I was driven enough to seek one out, but because they moved into the building where I worked, so it was easy to simply go upstairs and introduce myself.
At the suggestion of the agent I spoke to there, I had these photos made. The agent picked one she liked best, but I never got individual prints made. Because instead of pursuing further, I decided I should to go to college full-time to study theater, and joined the Army Reserves to pay for it. It was an impulsive decision made without consulting anyone else around me. I literally drove by the recruiting office one day and thought “Hey, I’ll do that!”
With the photos was a piece of notebook paper that must have been a page from a journal that I put with them later. As I read what I wrote then, I cried. Big, fat, tears of regret. I cried for the missed opportunity, I cried for the years I wasted ignoring my inner voice and doing what I thought was the “better” thing. The safer thing with a more reliable outcome… the thing I would probably also enjoy, but which was not my DREAM.
Y’all. I was more concerned with keeping the car I just bought all by myself than following my heart.
I think I would have been successful in New York. I also think I was super naive and probably would have learned some hard lessons about myself. But I still learned those lessons later – the Universe is helpful like that – so maybe earlier would have been better? At the very least, as I tried to tell myself in my journal, it would have been such a memorable EXPERIENCE!!! One that I didn’t have, and can’t recreate now. The door has closed on that dream.
I put the envelope in a stack of family mementos to store away and kept sorting. A bit further down in the pile, I found a little pamphlet from a recent exhibit at Crystal Bridges Museum. As I flipped through it, this quote smacked me right in the face.
Optimism, no regrets – only lessons learned, live in the now… it’s how I try to think most of the time, and I obviously needed the reminder. I stuck it up on the magnet board next to my desk.
Then, a card one of my daughters gave me for my birthday surfaced, and it helped drive home what I already know. I’m in a great place in my life. It’s not the place I may have hoped I’d be when I was 23 – but it’s the place my choices (or lack thereof) brought me to. I won’t say I don’t have regrets, because I’m not a liar. But I’ve led a pretty great life so far, and am surrounded by people who think I’m right where I need to be. And they’re right.
But what about those regrets we feel and the actions or inaction we know were mistakes we made that have led us to a difficult place?? That is real, and hard, and sometimes you can’t get over it by reading a quote or a sweet card from your kid.
I think the key to contentment is to not wallow in our regret and re-live it out loud every day. But it’s also not going to work to jam our feelings of regret into a hole and bury them. Instead, they must be faced, clear-eyed and with brutal honesty. But then we have to leave them behind as we move forward. We have to recognize why we have those feelings, and what role our own choices (or lack thereof) played in causing them, and meditate on how to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
And then, we have to take it a step further and recognize that really, there are no mistakes.
There are choices made or not made.
There are opportunities accepted or rejected.
Even if it takes us longer than some to notice the voice of our intuition and see the doors that are standing open for us (sometimes as we are busy pounding on the closed doors until we’re bruised!!) we must recognize that the place we are standing in today is a good place – maybe even a great place – and how we face the world is the result, not just of our past choices, but of our current attitude. Choices got you here, but choices will get you somewhere else too.
Get out there and celebrate the life you DO have. I know I am.
Also published on Medium.