My siblings and I were raised to revere Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. There was almost a religious quality to the role the company played in my family. My dad was the Chairman of the Board for over 40 years, but the company’s impact far exceeded a corporate obligation for him. Alvin Ailey was part of our cultural and spiritual training. We saw countless Ailey shows. Whenever they were in town, we were there. Row K, just a few seats off the aisle, in the majestic City Center on W. 55th St., where the company performed, felt like home to us.
Last night I went to see Ailey at The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Nothing felt right; the location of the seats, the air-conditioned space, the LA crowd, the vastness of the theater. I yearned to be sitting next to my dad in his row, his theater, watching his company. I wanted to hear him clap and sing along to the music, transported by the power of the talent and message.
A gorgeous male dancer, wearing a tight white t-shirt and white pants, took the stage to perform one of the sections of Revelations, Ailey’s signature work.
The solo, performed to the black spiritual “I Want to Be Ready”, was one of my dad’s favorites. Every single movement is perfection; the dips, the bends, the twirls, the extensions. Meticulous, powerful, and artistic, the dancer captivated the audience on his journey to become ready to “put on his long white robe.”
The avalanche of tears began.
I miss my dad so much. I could feel him feeling the performance.
“I Want to Be Ready” is the song we chose to play at my dad’s funeral both because he adored it and its message couldn’t be more relevant.
Are we ready?
Do we want to be ready?
How do we live to be ready?
Ready for what? Anything?
Ready for life?
I never talked to my dad about whether he was “ready” to die, but I sensed that he was. Truthfully, my dad always seemed ready for anything. In many ways, he remained the soldier he had been at 17, “ready” to be attacked by the Germans at any moment. But it wasn’t just the readiness that comes from fear or the knowledge that bad things happen all the time. It was a deeper, more accepting kind of readiness. Somehow, he lived without a lot of the angst, torment, worry, ambivalence or contradictions many of us grapple with, despite the agonizing challenges in his life.
I want to be ready too.
Do I follow the advice of Edith Piaf, the famous French singer, who sang, "Non, je ne regrette rien" (I have no regrets)?
I don’t think so.
Living without regret feels shallow and uncaring to me.
Regret is a negative cognitive or emotional state that involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been, or wishing we could undo a previous choice that we made. Regret can easily turn into rumination and trigger chronic stress that damages the mind and body.
The depth and pain of this emotion are described with haunting accuracy in Emily Dickinson’s poem:
Remorse is memory awake, Her companies astir, — A presence of departed acts At window and at door.
It's past set down before the soul, And lighted with a match, Perusal to facilitate Of its condensed despatch.
Remorse is cureless, — the disease Not even God can heal; For 't is his institution, — The complement of hell
Most of us regret that we have regrets. We know they make us our own worst enemies. We obsess about past events in our lives and wonder whether or not we made the right decisions or acted in the best ways. We blame ourselves for mucking things up and not listening to our better self, intuition, or conscience. In hard times, when things aren't going well, it's very tempting to try to figure out what we might have done differently.
Regret is right there in our minds, ready, willing, and able to have us second-guess our choices.
I certainly heard that voice of regret many times, for both small and significant choices. But does beating oneself up, wishing we had been wiser or more cautious change anything or even make us feel any better?
And doesn't it get in the way of feeling "ready?" Most spiritual teachers would admonish us to stay in the moment and realize there's no way to re-make the past. What's gone is gone. Let it be, and let it go.
And, while I agree that letting things go is an absolutely critical component of a more peaceful inner life, I also believe that regret itself can be valuable. Regrets can be catalysts for change when we take an honest look at a past decision that was “regrettable.”
Regret also helps us clarify what’s really important to us and commit to focusing on what ultimately (not momentarily) gives us a sense of satisfaction. When caught in the loop of regret, consider being thankful for the spiritual direction the emotion provides. In fact, being thankful for all of the things that have happened to us is the spiritual path in many religions. By doing so, it’s easier to move beyond self-blame and into acceptance and growth. Allow yourself to experience the sense of having done the best you can in this world thus far so that being "ready" feels natural and not false.
In his book, The Power of Regret, Daniel H. Pink reminds us that regrets are a universal and healthy part of being human. Understanding how regret works can help us make smarter decisions, perform better at work and school, and bring greater meaning to our lives. His persuasive findings include:
"Regret doesn’t just make us human. It also makes us better.
By making us feel worse today, regret helps us do better tomorrow.
If we look backward with the specific intent of moving forward, we can convert our regrets into fuel for progress. They can propel us toward smarter choices, higher performance, and greater meaning.
The sequence of self-disclosure, self-compassion, and self-distancing offer a simple yet systematic way to transform regret into a powerful force for stability, achievement, and purpose.
If we know what we truly regret, we know what we truly value. Regret—that maddening, perplexing, and undeniably real emotion—points the way to a life well-lived."
Being consumed with regret is of course never helpful because we overlook all the good that has come from our decisions and actions. So when you find yourself having regrets, bring to mind times when you did the right thing and came out happy and fulfilled. Investigate how these positive memories are different from the memories that are filled with regret. Make whatever adjustments are needed so that moving forward you are more likely to act in ways consistent with your positive memories.
There is no better advice on the topic than from Henry David Thoreau: "Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret is to live afresh."
So, have your regrets. Learn from them. Place them side by side with the decisions you know were right for you and feel the difference internally. Give yourself props for making so many great decisions. Really look at what motivated the decisions that ended up as regrets and see if there’s a pattern to them. Be grateful for everything that led to this moment in your life, including every wrong turn, missed opportunity, dumb mistake and regrettable choice. You are who you are because of all of them and you have the power to choose how to move forward.
As a life-long self-critic, I definitely need to heed my own advice and stop berating myself for one particularly bad decision in my life. After all, it did lead me to this incredibly satisfying and purposeful life I have now, helping others to slow down and become calmer and more present in their lives as well.
The musing on regret which resonated most with me is by Langston Hughes, who adopts the philosophy that there can be no horrible, unforgivable regret when what was done was done out of love. He writes:
“Out of love, No regrets-- Though the goodness Be wasted forever. Out of love, No regrets-- Though the return Be never.”
So, keep living life openly and as authentically as you can.
Where regrets exist, embrace them for the direction they’ve given you. And remember the two truths, seemingly contradictory, but actually beautifully aligned, that allow us to both learn and let go. 1. “Regret is to live life afresh” and 2. “Out of love, no regrets.”
Hallelujah for our shared humanity.
Be fully yourself, keep moving forward and living life as openly and authentically as you can and continue to ask yourself if you are "ready to put on a long white robe." The question will guide you well.
With love and light, Nora