If I could do my life over again, is there anything that I would change, leave out, or add? Am I happy with how my life took shape? Or do I wonder how it could have been shaped had I chosen a different path?
In Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” the protagonist is confronted with such a choice. He comes to a fork in the road, and he must decide which path to take. He concludes that one of the paths is “less traveled by,” but why? Frost also tells us that which road was eventually chosen “made all the difference.”
That haunting report sounds inviting even though that path could have looked bumpier or narrower or darker. Yet “difference” stirs our curiosity. If we knew where that path would lead us, we might have chosen a different one, and it could have “made all the difference.”
In the last decades of one’s life, when it is too late to do it over, people do wonder about these things and sometimes feel regrets. Can one still find complete contentment and satisfaction in life while still desiring what could or should have been had one made different choices at forks in the road?
Are you living with regrets? Do they haunt you? Or have you grown old gracefully, becoming generally content with how it all turned out no matter what mistakes you made, hurts you caused, or joys you missed? Are you able to let go of what could have been in order to better celebrate whatever did become of your life?
We must live the life we have, not the one we think we deserve. If we insist on the life we think we deserve, we will miss out on the one we have. The life we think we deserve might be imagined by our experiences of injustice, unexpected sickness, financial loss, or pleasant dreams that never materialized. But wisdom says it is folly to deny the realities of our lives in order to fantasize about what could have or should have been. A fulfilled life is realized by adjusting to the path we chose and making the most of the situation we have.
Yet I can think of three reasons why a latter-life review can still be beneficial. First, by asking such existential questions I indicate a desire to learn important lessons about the life I chose. It forces me to dig deep for every gem of understanding about myself and my environment. I particularly want to understand the mistakes I made. Secondly, it can lead to epiphanies about whatever I can or must now fix to improve or heal my life in the time I have left. Finally, it is a celebration of the grace that enabled me to live the life I did live despite the good or bad, right or wrong, crooked or straight paths I chose.
As for the haunting regrets I don’t want to think about because they fill me with shame and make me shudder at the memory of them, I can pray: “Lord, have mercy!” And God does have mercy. In our regrets, the same wisdom applies: Live the life you have (received by grace) rather than the one you think you deserve (from judgment). If you insist on the life you think you deserve (by carrying around your regret, guilt, and shame), you will miss the one you have been given (by grace and forgiveness from God and from people).