On Missed Opportunities

What do you regret?

I imagine we all regret having said something stupid from time to time. We’ve all forgotten an important date or to invite that friend to a party. Sometimes it’s worse, like damaging a relationship. And while these missteps make an impact, I’m wondering what sticks with us most heavily over the years?

Mark Twain is commonly quoted as having written that "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do.” And while I can’t find where he wrote it, the meaning still rings true. At least, it has for me so far.

Every year there’s something I wish I had done; some risk I regret not taking. I’ve passed up travel opportunities afraid of backlash at work. I’ve turned down invitations to hang out with new acquaintances because I felt too tired or couldn’t be bothered. I’ve passed on chances to go out in order to avoid certain individuals. And I’ve foregone creative endeavors out of laziness or feelings of inadequacy.

Another way to look at it is that I’ve given up a chance at the best in exchange for cheap imitations. And notice that it’s nearly always out of fear. I’m afraid of what others think, of conflict or of disappointing myself.

Reflecting on this pattern, I’ve often fortified myself with promises to never turn down something I desire again. I’ve practiced making eye contact with strangers. I’ve traveled knowing that the time margins were slim. I’ve resisted watching Netflix in favor of playing music. And it’s made a difference.

If you ask people what they’ve always wanted to do, most people haven’t done it. That breaks my heart.”
— Angelina Jolie

But is it enough? Will I look back in 10, 20 or 50 years and still have regrets?

During my interview with centenarian Katherine Stanick (Ep. 003, May 20, 2018), she said that one of the advantages of being 101 years old is that virtually everyone she’s ever offended is no longer here. Don’t we all wish we had that luxury!

She offered up that, much like me, her greatest regrets are the things that she didn’t do rather than those that she did. But she had an entirely different take on it.

Katherine said that she wished she had been better about taking flowers to her sick friends. She thinks about the times she could have been kinder. Yes, she also spoke about jobs that she could have accepted. But the sticking point in her mind were missed opportunities to show compassion rather than missing out on self-focused experiences.

This perspective challenges me. When I meditate, I often come out of the session feeling uplifted and ready to live fully in the moment. I attempt to be more observant and aware. But my challenge is that no matter how aware I feel, I still see through these two eyes. I am still the central figure in my own epic film. I am the center of my own universe.

On a retreat in India, my friend’s guru told her that there are far too many mindfulness centers around the world. “What we need now”, he said, “are Compassion Centers.”

What a concept!

Honestly, what does that even look like? What happens at a center where people practice showing compassion? I’ll admit, it seems ethereal to me, and yet I love the idea.

As the hero in a story of my own making, I’m perpetually trying (albeit unconsciously) to make my life better, more exciting, more share-worthy.

So, it only makes sense that my biggest regrets to date are things I missed out on. It’s about the stories I can’t tell to impress my friends. It all hinges on the adventures I didn’t go on. And, notice, that’s all about me. Me, me, me!

After 100 years of living and experiencing and losing and remembering, Katherine doesn’t really carry any of that selfish weight. Stories and bragging rights quickly fade. No one really cares about my Instagram photos or the trips or exotic locations I’ve seen. In fact, the more I share, the less they like me. Only I love hearing about me.

I am my own favorite topic.

Katherine, instead, invited me to think about the chances I have everyday to show love and compassion to my friends and family.

So, here are the questions I’m asking myself today.

  • How can you help a child feel better about themselves?

  • Can you offer a patient ear to someone hurting?

  • Will you hold the gaze of an elderly person and return their endearing smile?

  • Are you willing to laugh along with that kid in the check out line?

  • Will you give your waiter a few extra bucks just because you can?

  • Will you sit quietly with someone suffering rather than trying to make yourself feel better by offering some inane advice?

  • Will you be patient in traffic?

  • Will you hug someone who would appreciate it?

What are your questions to yourself? Where can you show compassion today?

One thing I do know, I never regret showing kindness to others or to myself. The emotional flow that comes from these actions sticks with me far longer than any burst of excitement from “likes” on social media.

Compassion lasts beyond where excitement fades.