Out of the corner of my right eye, I could just barely see the green tassel dangling from my cap as I felt a surge of anxiety. Suddenly, my attention split between the professor calling students with last names starting with “O” and the familiar cries of my youngest daughter coming from the back of the room. I filled up with self-consciousness and spilled out these sarcastic words to the student seated next to me: “That would be my child.”
My tired husband hopefully bounced and walked our baby girl. He had spent the day flying four hours with two small children to attend my graduation ceremony. They were a trio of exhaustion. Despite my anxiety-induced paralysis, I had a vague sense that my daughter wanted me. But my name was about to be called. So, without much deliberation, I stayed in my cap and gown role and did what was expected: I walked to the stage to receive my diploma.
That was three years ago. And as I recall the scene, I am still filled with regret.
If I could do it again, I would detour to the back of the room, take my fussy daughter from my husband’s weary arms, and proceed to the stage with her in my arms. I know it would have been okay; it was a casual ceremony in a hotel conference room. I feel sure that she would have stopped crying. And I would love for that moment to be a memory filled with love instead of self-conscious regret.
I used to believe that living a regret-free life was both noble and possible. I hoped that, in my last minutes on earth, my wrinkled reflection would reveal eyes free from regret’s dark weight. I thought doing everything I could to avoid remorse was how to make the most of this fleeting life.
I didn’t realize that “no regrets” was my personal code for “do everything right.” I wasn’t in touch with the depths of my perfectionism, or the truth that I doubted my ability to live with myself if I made bad choices or big mistakes. I didn’t understand that my wish to live with no regrets was rooted in fear.
You see, our choices can look wise but actually be covers for our fears of feeling like a fool, doing things wrong or hurting someone. We can self-protectively tremble behind inspiring-sounding maxims like, “no regrets.” We can feel good about following rules, keeping it together, and be blind to our boxes:
Staying in character on that graduation day made sense; some might even say it was the right thing to do. But here I am, three years later, naming it as one of my biggest regrets.
Nothing bad happened. My daughter won’t even remember the day I chose self-consciousness over her. But the moment stays with me because I was true to my fear instead of my heart.
As I reflect, I wonder if this is regret’s recipe: Letting fear win. I am starting to believe that regret has far less to do with morality and perfection than with the choices we make around fear. And, I am letting that cap and gown moment teach me.
We can live with regret and live free. How good is a life of no regrets if we have stayed in our boxes?
I no longer want to live boxed in. Or under the spell of life mottos that sound good and look pretty.
I want to look my elderly face in the mirror and see wrinkles that pushed me past my fears, lines that draw good stories, and eyes that learned to see my heart.