Perhaps one of the most powerful ways to experience regret, is not to experience it directly, but to open your mind to another person and listen to one of their stories.
A coworker of mine, who I would easily consider a friend outside of the workplace, made a confession to me at an after-work gathering recently.
About her – she possesses the sort of wisdom that can only come from being alive a few decades. Middle-aged. Extremely fair in how she treats everyone, generous, hard working, and a true critical-thinker. Calm. She has the respect of the entire organization – an organization that contains some of the smartest and most morally grounded people I know.
It was a brief but powerful comment. She said, to me:
“On the walk to this party I was all alone. And it was really nice.
A while ago someone asked me: would you do it all over again… get married, have kids? I said, no. Absolutely not.”
My empathetic response was sharply triggered – I experienced a flash of second-hand regret. Her commitment to her family, her child who she obviously loves, kept her, in her own view, locked on a road with no contemplation of an off-ramp or sign of relief.
It’s not that she was lamenting disappointment with her particular marriage, as in breaking-away to start some more ideal relationship or family. It was more disappointment with the idea of marriage and family in the first place. Some kind of fairytale may have enticed her down a path in her young life that never actually lived-up to its expectations. Now there she was – longing for solitude that lasted longer than a brief 10 minute walk to a work party, and imagining herself in an alternate universe, sans marriage and child.
Whether or not she can make changes to give herself space and shift her perspective more positively in life, stands apart from a few points I humbly offer below.
Solitude – Something to be Cherished
Occasionally I consider my own solitude – a period of solo living that’s been ongoing for about ten years. Having experienced a long-term romantic relationship earlier in my life, I used to regard solitude as some temporary condition until the next relationship. The more time that goes on, the more I cherish my free time. The more I appreciate how my mind can roam freely, and learn, and grow, and experience movement in any direction I wish. If this is not true attainment of bliss, I’m not sure what is. It is not selfish, I routinely interact meaningfully with friends, family, and complete strangers. I have a deep appetite to contribute to the world – not merely hide away with all my comforts.
I am not cynical about romantic love. It’s obviously a real and meaningful aspect of being a human. But it seems over and over again to be hijacked by this over-the-top fantasy, a caricature of “true love” one can routinely discover in a Disney movie, or thousands of stories in film or literature.
I am fascinated with how these sensational ideas seep deeply into our psyches from childhood, and subsequently to propel us blindly towards fulfillment of them, never questioning that utter disappointment may await around the corner. If the deep desire is to feel complete, this is not going to be the missing puzzle piece. I observe this not just in my coworker that evening, but hundreds of thousands of people in everyday life, who are devastated and sometimes bizarrely motivated by unmet romantic expectations.
Where do these expectations come from? Are they realistic? It would serve everyone well to mediate deeply on these questions. Easier said than done.
I’ll share another confession – from my father. My 70-year-old father is one of the most patient, calm, kind-hearted humans I’ve ever known. It sounds cliché to say such that about one’s dad – but I truly believe this man is a freak in how warmly he treats people. A heart of gold. A couple of years ago, he said to me:
“For the many years I was single and living on my own, I was very happy. I think people should probably not get married until they’re 50. You learn a lot about yourself.”
He was not referring to being single as an opportunity for romantic endeavors. He was talking about space to nourish the soul. Learning, wandering, exploring. Growing as a human being and learning how to thrive, all on your own. Somehow, my own project of exemplifying independence as an adult gave him permission to share that with me. It’s a gem of insight I can keep in my treasure chest.
Intelligent Relationships, Intelligent Expectations
What’s my takeaway? Banish marriage? Shall people wander as lone wolves, occasionally bearing children with non-attached strangers, and messily raising them in unstable environments as they prioritize self-discovery, thereby unleashing a new generation of psychological trauma upon the world?
My caution is modest: Don’t take solitude for granted. Embrace it while you have it. Recognize it’s a place you’ll always have to learn and grow and feel complete. I wish people knew to invest in themselves more deeply prior to investing in the idea sensationalized romantic relationship. The hard truth is that this fantasy never comes true, for anyone. Believing a “happily-ever-after” existence awaits in another person is a terrible mistake that can cause great agony and suffering. Further, it costs precious time that could have been spent in infinitely healthier ways.
Through a fortunate series of accidents, I have discovered first hand, an extremely happy existence can be discovered in solitude. Once discovered, this foundation of wellbeing gives one a stable psychological platform to build the rest of their lives. Whether or not that connects with marriage and family is totally up to the individual, of course.
Let this be a data point to the world – solitude, even if only temporary phase in one’s life, is wonderful and enlightening in a way nothing else can be. Make the most of it.