REGRETS by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonBoth my sisters claim to have no regrets about their lives.  I do.  It’s not so much that I regret specific things that happened to me in my life or even some of the particular choices I made although both the “happenings” and “choices” are a result of a larger regret.  Nor do I spend much time going over it all in my mind.  I don’t believe that listing all the “if onlys” and ruminating about “wrong turns” is productive.

Some people interpret the happenings in their lives as only positive.  If X hadn’t happened, then I would not have Y (a good thing).  Well, maybe, maybe not.  Or, they are convinced that because a particular incident occurred, they experienced Z (another good thing).  Is that particular incident a necessary precursor to the important and valuable Z experience?  How can we know?  And does that mean that those things leading up to Z cannot be regrettable?  By and large, it seems we’ve come to a place in our society where the things that happen in one’s life are ultimately constructed as positive.

There are, of course, those people who wring their hands, negatively obsessing over all the “happenings” in their lives as well as the “choices” they’ve made.  However, we have a plethora of pithy sayings floating about that are used to put a positive spin on what some perceive to be negative occurrences.  We hear, “Everything happens for a reason.”  (We’re supposed to be comforted by that.)  “Keep your chin up.  Life isn’t as bad as it seems.”  (Sometimes it’s worse.)  “If someone puts you down or criticizes you, just keep on believing in yourself and turn it into something positive.”  (How does this even make sense?)

I have regrets, but perhaps the anecdote that best sums up my sense of regret is a story that has come down to us about the Buddha–the son of a Brahmin priest who became enlightened, eventually finding a way out of suffering.  I am not Buddhist, however, I find myself embracing the Buddha’s succinct and “tell it like it is” manner.  When the Buddha was asked, “Are you a god or a magician?” the Buddha replied, “I am neither.  I am awake.”

My overarching regret is simply this:  I was not awake for much of my life.

What does it mean to be awake?  In Herman Hesse’s classic novel, Siddhartha, the main character, Siddhartha, finds a fatal flaw in the Buddha’s teaching and says to the Buddha, “…[y]ou have reached the highest goal…by your own seeking…through thought, through meditation, through knowledge, through enlightenment.  You have learned nothing through teachings [emphasis mine], and so I think…that nobody finds salvation through teachings.”  Essentially, the Buddha found his own way, forging an effective salvific path, albeit one that was at odds with his society/culture.

Teachings (doctrines) cannot give us the needed experience to effectively navigate the world.  Siddhartha tells the Buddha that even though he could never find a “better doctrine” than the one the Buddha teaches, what’s lacking is “…the secret of what the Illustrious One himself experienced.”  Siddhartha then announces he will “…leave all doctrines and all teachers and…reach my goal alone–or die.”  I cringe here as this line reflects a stereotypical masculinity.  Strong, determined, male figure goes off alone to achieve his goals.  Of course, as the book progresses, we note that Siddhartha receives much help (food, warmth, friendship–even sex) along the way in spite of his bravado.  Nevertheless, this particular line resonates with my own experience.

At a certain point in my life (and I regret that it was later in my life than earlier), I had to stop believing the “truth” (doctrines as the “be all and end all”), handed down to me by my parents, my faith community, as well as the wider culture.  Waking up entailed understanding the necessity of living my life as though what I thought, felt, and experienced mattered.  What I think, feel, and experience may not (and doesn’t have to) matter to other people, but I had to get to the point where all of my efforts mattered to me–enough so I could act on them–going at it alone, if need be.

It’s quite easy and even sometimes fashionable to focus on somebody else’s chosen path especially if we perceive their path to have few, if any, pitfalls.  We may even somehow “believe in” their chosen path.  Many people attempt to follow gurus, sheiks, pastors, and priests, copying the path these people (almost always men) have taken in order to insure their ultimate salvation.

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”  (This saying is attributed to Zen Master Linji Yixuan, founder of the Rinzai sect in 12th century Japan.)

To kill the Buddha on the road means we need to realize that no “truth” or “meaning” that we “take on” from a source other than ourselves brings ultimate peace and satisfaction.  That kind of peace and satisfaction comes from within one’s own self.  Again, I cringe here with the metaphor of killing.  I would rather the saying read, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, don’t allow him to entangle you.”

I wonder, though, as I write this essay, if perhaps I am guilty of becoming entangled with the Buddha “on the road,” regretting the “lost” years of my life because I did not understand what I understand now, and believing that my life could have, would have, should have been better–whatever “better” is.  Maybe the most productive thing I can do is step aside, let the Buddha pass, and not entangle myself with my construct of what I perceive could have been a “better” life.  Living authentically–being in touch with one’s self–in the “here and now” is more than enough.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Categories: Buddhism, General, Women's Voices

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26 replies

  1. This post resonates with me. Thanks for voicing these thoughts and feelings.

    I have found the “it all happens for a reason” philosophy unhelpful–like yeah if my baby brother had not died the same year my grandmother died ravaged with cancer when I was a child myself, maybe I wouldn’t have become a theologian. Fine, I am happy to be a theologian, but that does not “justify” the suffering of myself and my family in those years. Some things do not happen “for any good reason.” This to me is a much healthier way to look at the world. We can try to make the best of every situation, this is the right response, as long as we don’t blame ourselves or others for sometimes being overwhelmed by things that we cannot cope with.

    I do agree with you that life is what it is and that it also does no good to wish that the past had been other than it was. Nor as you say, is there any need to justify suffering as belonging to some overall beneficent plan of a good and all-powerful God.


  2. Thank you Esther. Yes, to become true to one’s self is what the struggle is all about. What happens individually and microscopically has an effect on the collective, macroscopic level. It’s too easy to take an other ideology to heart – especially when there are responses like ‘it all happens for a reason’ – although sometimes I do think this and the struggle in finding it – or not – will take a long time …


  3. To know yourself and respect your own thoughts and ideas takes years of growth and maturity. It is not something that happens overnight. At least you recognized the truth of respecting your own ideas and not blindly following what was written down in society as truths for you to follow. I like the Buddhist idea of looking at the moon and not the finger pointing at the moon. It is a lot less violent.


  4. There are times we need to take a wrong turn, to find our way. And creatively, a supposed mistake too can become an inspiration. I remember trying to do an abstract painting with a brush too full of paint, and so I accidentally ran the brush off the canvas, but the result was gorgeous, and so I left the mistake there just as it was, all splotched along the edge.


  5. “Living authentically–being in touch with one’s self–in the “here and now” is more than enough.”
    Oh Yes! What else is there in this journey of life.


  6. My spiritual role model is the Little Red Hen.


  7. To wish to have been more awake in the past is just another way of being asleep the present moment. It is a way of missing, remaining unconscious to the total grace, newness, innocence of the present. The only time you can ever be awake is now.


  8. Oh, how I love this essay. I’m finishing up a Constructive Theology class this week, and once again I’m struck by how the mental meanderings of a select group of men were (and continue to be) presented as “Truth.” As an LGBT woman, I found it impossible to live in a life-affirming way by cobbling together some sense of their theology and still live with integrity. It wasn’t until that house of cards completely fell in on itself that I realized I had to create my own path. In so doing, I faced the depth of how I’d been brainwashed by both patriarchal religion and Western culture. Each step I took toward freedom was met with deep fear of punishment. After some time, however, I realized this fear was just a mental habit propped up by conformity. Now the terror is gone, and I’m able to enjoy life. Like Ms. Nelson, however, I wish it had happened sooner. Nothing I can do about that, though, so I’ll just continue on and hope the remainder of my life is comprised of many years.


    • What a lovely, heart-felt comment, Diane! I can really relate to this sentence: “It wasn’t until that house of cards completely fell in on itself that I realized I had to create my own path.” That “collapse” is frightening, but so rewarding when one begins to build a sturdy structure based on one’s own thinking and feeling as you so eloquently testify to. Thank you.


  9. I love how this post challenges the false optimisim that is popular in much of our culture. Insisting that we see everything as positive seems like a good way to distance ourselves from our authenticity — the opposite of “living as though what [we] thought, felt and experienced mattered.” We can celebrate the fact that adversity makes us stronger, while also acknowledging that the adverse experience was, quite simply, horrible.
    This post made me think more about the role of “teachings.” For me, teachings have been extremely powerful. I am so grateful for them. They have hugely helped me grow and evolve and connect to my own spirituality — to my own spirit. So I can’t agree with the suggestion in Siddhartha that we learn nothing without them. Rather, I’d say, we get stuck if we overidentify with the teachings, subject them to power and politics, use them as norms and benchmarks by which to judge others, or in any way treat them as anything other than beautiful gifts to be respected, enjoyed and shared. Yes, yes, they are the finger pointing at the moon.


    • Thanks, laura! Siddhartha does acknowledge that he will probably never find a “better doctrine” than what Gotama (the Buddha) taught, but there was no way the Buddha (or anybody) can teach us the EXPERIENCE needed to find our way. Teachings are not capable of holding experience.


  10. Well written. I completely agree. We as humans learn a lot from the experiences of those that came before us. Human civilization is built upon the knowledge of generations past – one piece at a time. It’s natural that people want to apply this to almost all aspects of their lives. However, there’s a difference between handed down knowledge and handed down experience. As hard as we try, we cannot fully imagine the experience of another if it is outside our own experience. We can empathize with people. We can try to feel what they feel based on what they tell us, but we cannot truly know what it is like to go through their experiences.

    Much of our personal growth in life works this way. It’s not something one can learn from a book, or the teachings of a master(mistress?). It’s like the classic saying that some sort of suffering “builds character”. And I think this is why many people would not change the bad things in their lives. They realize that their character is shaped by the bad experiences and they believe they would not be who they are without those experiences.

    I do think one can have regret, but still appreciate who one currently is.

    It’s important for parents and authority figures to encourage the personal journey of those in their care. Too many think that their “authority” means telling those under them what they should think and feel. They trap those in their care into feeling that they have to think a certain way to be “good”. This mental trap can be very difficult to escape, and offers little satisfaction to those who don’t naturally fit into it.


    • Thank you, Matt, for this supportive response. I like this: “Too many think that their “authority” means telling those under them what they should think and feel. They trap those in their care into feeling that they have to think a certain way to be “good”. This mental trap can be very difficult to escape,,,,” The hierarchical structure we live in day in and day out attempts to dominate and rob us of our own experience so necessary to feel whole.


  11. I read this early in the morning but came back to it as the day progressed and that led to my noticing how your meditation on the Zen koan resonates uncannily with an entirely different (or is it?) tradition: “Be passersby” (Saying 42, Gospel of Thomas, R. Valantasis trans.).


    • Great observation, Stuart. Thanks. One of my Christian colleagues articulated a similar sentiment to me today when she noted that some Christian writings have what she called “Buddhist overtones.” The phrase “Be passersby” certainly gives me the sense of the transience and impermanence of our lives.


  12. Beautifully written. I am reminded of Zora Neale Hurston’s quote – “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”
    ― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God


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