“Omnia Vanitas”. This is the recurring phrase in the Latin translation of a very short book titled, ‘Ecclesiastes’. Though some may differ, it is my opinion (and there is good evidence for my position) that this book was penned by none other than Solomon the Wise. I’ve read this book repeatedly over the years because when the man considered to be the wisest of the ages takes time to write something down.. I want to understand what he wrote. Translated, he repeats this theme in his accounting of all that goes on in the lives of men as they toil under the sun.. “All is in vain.”.
He further goes on to say, “there is nothing new under the sun”. We have our own ideas of what is ‘new’. We hear about ‘new’ detergents, new automobiles and new technology. But under the grand view, they are nothing more than tools for daily life. However, the writer’s emphasis was not to discuss the tools we use to move about, heal our bodies or communicate. He was looking at the endeavors, motives and the very purpose of our lives. Our lives. Not the shiny objects or playthings we pass the time with, for all these things wear out with the using.
So what does this have to do with a life lived without regret in this year we are living in? Think, for a moment, about your life as you’ve known it thus far. As if seeing a timeline from overhead.. see a line stretching back in time through the years until it comes to a sudden point.. the day you were born. From that point to today is a line that covers every experience, every thought, every place, every person you’ve spoken with and.. every decision you’ve personally made at any moment along that line.
Like a silent dream, we find ourselves in this world at birth. A specific city, specific parents and all within a wide matrix of possibilities. Some of us born wealthy, some poor. Some given out for adoption, others not. Some born to decent, loving parents, some born with drugs already coursing through their veins. A favorite song of mine, originally a medieval poem but only until about 80 years ago was turned into a musical composition titled, ‘O Fortuna’ contains the following lyrics which are sung by chorus in Latin;
“O Fortune, just as the moon
Stands constantly changing,
always increasing or decreasing;
Detestable life now difficult
and then easy
Deceptive sharp mind;
it melts them like ice.”
(You’ve likely heard the song, it has been used commercially since then many times.) In this song the writer sings of Fate’s fickleness and whim in regards to the lives of men.
So, now.. back to the timeline of your life.
After birth, comes childhood. At this point we begin to communicate with the world around us. We begin to formulate ideas. By instinct we are searching to know, “How does this World function?”. We rely upon parents to give us this information. We gather data from touching, smelling, tasting the world around us. As we get even older, we progress from simply receiving information to formulating and developing our own ideas about how to function in this World. By the time we get to our teens, we are so anxious to leap into the unknown territory of approaching freedom that we convince ourselves we have surpassed any and all knowledge our parents could possibly have fathomed. Finally.. as young adults, we launch into the World certain that we are far more prepared to not only survive but to make a monumental impact upon the World.
When it comes to the lives of one generation after another along the greater timeline of history.. there is nothing new under the sun.
Perhaps you are young. Perhaps you have lived for three or four decades. And perhaps still you have lived to see seven decades of life as you read this. As a young man in my 20’s, with all confidence and resolution I made a promise to myself that I would end my life looking back upon a life without any regrets. Let others regret their decisions in their old age. But I would not be one of them, for I was better and smarter than my predecessors. I would leapfrog over other generations by learning from the mistakes of others. And so I voraciously read biographies of people from many walks of life. I read the biographies of Mother Theresa, Mohammed Ali, General Custer, Al Capone, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, Jim Morrison, Hunter Thompson, Jesus, Buddha, Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Ted Bundy, Henry Ford, Solomon, Moses, King David, Jackie Chan, Charles Manson, Charles Spurgeon, Charles G. Finney and others. I wanted to know how they succeeded, how they failed, how they lived and how they died.
And so, just like yourself, I ventured into this world. I continually watched and continued to read and listen to the experiences of others. And just like yourself.. I was called upon to make decisions. I found that sometimes ‘big’ decisions were exactly that, with obvious and great consequence for good or bad upon my life or others around me. What I also found was that decisions that I thought were ‘small’ were also of monumental impact. Something as simple as being 45 minutes early for a date changed the course of my life because of how I chose to spend that short time. So many decisions.. so many outcomes and consequences or benefits. But there was even more at play than I’d calculated upon.. Chance.
In Ecclesiastes, (Solomon) writes; “I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” That really blew my mind. At first I refused to accept it. But as the years rolled by, I witnessed the truth in it. Solomon was right, and I had been wrong.
And so the years rolled forward. Decisions about education. Marriage. Kids. Career. Divorce. Obligations. Promises. There is no escaping the constant decisions that make up our lives. Even the choice to no longer make decisions and let Fate have it’s way with us is a decision in itself. Do we run the yellow light at the intersection or wait? Do we strike out in anger with our words or hold our tongue? Do we say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to dating the person we just met? Do we leave the job we have to take what looks like a better career? Do we experiment with that drug we know might be our ruin? Do we in passion have sex that may or may not mean a new child in our life? Do we truly make time for our child or rationalize them away? So many, many decisions with no guarantee on the outcome or the impact that will come of such decisions! And so I in my life, as I’m sure you in yours, sought to do the very best that I could with the knowledge available to me. Most of the time.
For even though we may know the ‘right’ decision to make at the time.. something in our nature takes delight in “throwing caution to the wind” every so often. Take that chance. It goes against all reason, but do it anyway. Like the fruit from the forbidden tree.. it is the fruit we can’t turn our eyes from. The decision to break away from the hum-drum safety of what ‘makes sense’ is one that repeatedly finds it’s way into our path. And sometimes with dire, even deadly consequences.
I’ll leave you to be honest with yourself, silently within your mind. For myself, after what is soon to be my fifth decade in this World, I will simply share with you my perspective in this matter. One which I have given much thought to over many quiet nights as my mind pondered and analyzed to make sense of the workings that govern this Universe which I happen to find myself in.
As I look back upon my life, and it’s countless decisions, I could be brash as some are and say, “I regret nothing.” Some justify this by saying, “I don’t regret anything that I wanted to do at that particular time.” Fine, rationalization has no need of reason. Let each do as they will. But I personally refuse that rationalization. For, in every decision we are called upon to make, we are making our decisions based upon the Result that we hope to achieve. And if, in all honest and objective observation, our decision leads to the opposite of what we desired.. regret is the result.
We are imperfect. Each one of us. As imperfect persons it is foolish to believe that we have managed to make 100% of our decisions correctly along the years of our lives. This is not to say we are unhappy necessarily with our current lot in life. We adapt very well and have a keen ability to “make the best of it” as we go along. When one door closes, we search for another. When a plan, decision, commitment, marriage does not continue or end as we’d hoped and planned.. we recover and make a new plan. We seek out what ‘good’ came of the decision and we cling to that. We look at the failed marriage and regret that it ended the way it did.. but we focus on the wonderful children that were a result of that decision. What we regret is not the past decision to marry (necessarily), but we regret that somewhere along the way the commitment went awry and that was not the result our decision was based upon. No one buys a lottery ticket with a desire to lose. They harbour some small glimmer of hope that against all odds there is a small chance they may ‘win’. The job change. The move to another city. We take joy in the decisions that come out as we’d hoped. We tend to block out the decisions that we later regret.
And so, I can honestly share from my own life that as I look back on my experiences thus far there are some decisions I can look back upon and can truly say, “Wow.. I can’t believe I actually had the courage or fortitude or honor to actually carry out that decision. I managed against all odds to do a great thing for someone else at sacrifice to my own self”.
I can also say, with all honesty, “I cannot believe I was so foolish or so wicked to make that other decision. I brought ruin and hardship into play solely due to my own choice. How could I have done such a thing? I truly regret it.. I wish it had never happened.. I would undo it if I could.”.
If you can relate to the first statement above, but cannot relate to the second, then perhaps you are a much, much better person than I. Or perhaps, too young or prideful to take such an unflinching, unedited look down the corridor of time that you know as ‘Your Life’. But I say this not to fault anyone, only to observe what is real. My final summation is that in this imperfect life, whether we are willing to face our past decisions or not, somewhere the truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as a life without regrets. There are lives without conscience. I’ve read of serial killers who have no remorse or regret over snuffing out innocent lives. Wife-beathing men who regret nothing. But their inability or unwillingness to acknowledge regret is a sign that they have stepped away from the path of humanity and strayed into that of a brute beast.
For the rest of us, as I mentioned.. we adapt well. We know how to rationalize and even re-invent the past. Failing that we know how to block it out completely. But I believe, from experience, that regret is a Good thing. When we truly, down to our soul finally regret the pain we have caused ourself or those we love.. only then is our resolve to Never let it be our decision ever again made stronger. Just as pain from sticking our hand in a fire reinforces a new wisdom for our future incidents with fire.. the pain of regret likewise offers us a better character. To become the sort of person who learns from past mistakes, past regrets.
Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “He that makes of himself a beast relieves himself of the burden of being a man.” Any brute beast can mindlessly pass through time with no thought or care to it’s decisions or consequences. Such is a life lived in vain. But character requires making use of the memory and intellect we have been given. It is painful at times. It is a process that can cause sorrow to well up from our very bones as we look unflinchingly at our past dealings with others. But if we will let it do it’s work, regret can grant us a strengthened resolve to make better decisions both presently and in our future.