Living with yesterday’s bad decision

Bob McKee

The thing is that there are no time machines to whisk us back to an earlier age so we can correct a bad decision or rephrase a careless comment. No “Back to the Future” opportunities to choose another course in life or treat someone close a little kinder. Most of us know that and move on, learning to live with regrets while not letting them dominate our lives.

A longtime friend is on the verge of becoming obsessed with what he calls “bad“ decisions” he made over the course of his lifetime. His growing feeling of guilt over some of those decisions is beginning to dominate the remaining days of his life, something he readily acknowledges but can’t seem to control.

In a few years, he probably will regret wasting so much of his time now regretting things that happened decades ago, things that are far beyond correcting or making amends for to the people involved. I hope he snaps out of it and learns to accept the past for what it was and live today without dwelling so much on yesterday.

We all have regrets, wishing we could go back and change something. We can’t. Maybe it’s something that comes with getting older, that desire to have made wiser choices, to have been a better person. Of course it’s never too late, they say, to become a better person, but you’re still not ever going to be able to correct past wrongs or change the direction of your life. It is what it is.

From other people’s perspective, including mine, this friend appears to have made all the right decisions. He was a product of his time, a genuine car nut. So a year out of high school he started his own auto repair business and put in a lot of 14-hour days to get it rolling. It did and he moved to a bigger garage and began hiring mechanics. Later he expanded into the used car business and it was equally successful. Then he took another step and began customizing vans and that part of the business took off. Eventually he began putting wheelchair lifts and hand controls on vans and that venture was wildly successful leading eventually to in-home alterations for his wheelchair-bound customers.

He sold his businesses a few years ago for a healthy profit but stayed with the new owners a couple of years as a paid consultant before retiring to a comfortable lifestyle. Still, he says he has some regrets and wishes he had done some things differently. When asked what he has regrets about, his replies are vague, such as “I should have gotten a college education,” or “I should have been a better dad to my kids.”

In his case, I doubt that a college education would have made him more successful. As for being a better father, most men — will say that if only because they believe they were too strict, or not strict enough, or because of some incident of imagined indifference that stuck in their memory but likely has been long forgotten by their children. Most women at some point might say they regret not being better mothers. It’s human nature to want to be perfect parents. Sons and daughters too, for that matter, may regret not being perfect children. Few among us haven’t wished we’d been better kids for our parents.

Although most people may have major regrets about the choices they made or things they did in the past, too many regrets appear to be based on events that, in retrospect, were meaningless. As an 11-year-old, I spent several weeks with an uncle and aunt in Texas, traveling with my uncle on his rounds as a geologist for Phillips Petroleum Co. But while he was on a business trip, I remained at their Dallas home with my aunt. She was working in the yard one morning and asked if I wanted to help dig up the dandelions that were threatening to take over their lawn. 

My insouciant reply was something like: “No, I’m on vacation,” and I walked away.

I hope she has long since forgotten that bratty response and still loves me. Still it stuck in my mind for years but I can’t go back to that July day in Dallas and say: “Sure, Aunt Pat. I’d love to dig dandelions. It’s the least I can do in return for you feeding and entertaining me for three weeks.”

I don’t know what to say to my friend, not that he’s asking for my advice on dealing with his regrets. I just hate to see him waste time stewing about the past when he has so much going for him now. If he did ask I’d tell him that obsessing over the past won’t change anything. Just ask my Aunt Pat.