By Teresa Swartz Roberts
Blog post 26. Copyright 2018
A while back I heard a little girl tell a friend, “I made a not-so-good choice yesterday.” She went on to explain what she had done and what her parents had done about it, using the word consequence. It was clear she had learned something from their reaction. My son was away at college by then, and I found myself wishing I could go back and use that terminology with him when we butted heads as he was growing up. It was too late for The Boy, but maybe there was something I could learn.
First, I had to understand that making a not-so-good choice does not make me a bad person. Second, I had to figure out how an uncomfortable consequence could make me a better person. Third, I had to realize that not all not-so-good choices lead to an obvious consequence. In that case, the consequence often comes from within, and it can be harsh.
Regret and shame are powerful forces. The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous understood that they can also be destructive. The 12 steps require writing a moral inventory, sharing wrongs with another human being, and making amends where doing so doesn’t do more harm. When I tried Overeaters Anonymous, it was sharing the moral inventory that scared me the most. (So much that I didn’t do it.) I know a woman who converted to Catholicism in order to share her moral inventory with a priest. She converted and stayed with the church for lots of other reasons, but she told me that sharing her sins with an intermediary continues to help her work the 12 steps.
I read comments on a friend’s Facebook post the other day in which someone, in talking about the opioid epidemic and programs to help addicts, said, “You stupid you die.” If stupid equals death, I should have been a goner a long time ago.
Which leads me to a fourth point, that the things that happen to us, good and bad, are not necessarily the consequences of our own actions. We seldom get what we deserve. I used to toast marshmallows over the little gas stove that heated our added-on TV room at the back of the house I grew up in. I didn’t go up in flames. I am not sorry that I didn’t get what I deserved.
What I am really sorry about are the not-so-good choices I made that hurt people. You know, the things I am not going to write about on Facebook, the things I hope nobody else is going to write about, either. I thank my friends for keeping my secrets. And I thank my parents for having me when they did so that I grew up pre-Internet and pre-social media and pre-cell phone, so it’s unlikely that there is actual video of my many not-so-good choices. (Please, don’t try to prove me wrong.)
Now that I’ve been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, there’s a great temptation to go around knocking on doors and apologizing for the thousands of not-so-good choices I’ve made. I think about writing letters to people who have long-since forgotten that I was thoughtless or unkind. Don’t be surprised if you eventually hear from me. It’s not so much that PD is going to shorten my life, but it’s likely to shorten the time I have left to climb those front porch steps or write those letters. I think that, for me, such a journey of apologies might be unhealthy.
There’s a school of thought that looks good on tattoos and Internet memes that having no regrets is a good thing. Frank Sinatra croons, “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…” (in “I Did It My Way,” written by Paul Anka). Maybe it is a good thing to have no regrets, but I will never find out.
I had a poster on my closet door when I was a teenager: “I AM ME,” by Virginia Satir, which included the passage, “However I look and sound, whatever I say and do, and whatever I think and feel at a given moment in time, is authentically me. If later some parts of how I looked, sounded, thought and felt turn out to be unfitting, I can discard that which is unfitting, keep the rest, and invent something new for that which I discarded.” Reinvention, winding up with a better me, is the goal of my journey. I will make not-so-good choices along the way, but I hope I will get there.