I burst into tears the other day. I was watching old episodes of the tv show Parenthood with my youngest who was recuperating from his wisdom teeth being pulled. He was lounging in the chair, half-sleep, when the weekly scene of the family gathering in the garden for dinner came on. In a dreamlike voice, he muttered through swollen checks, “I wish we could have dinners like that.” I watched the family laugh and toast each over flickering candle light. It was so perfect and I too longed for that experience. I have longed for it for as long as I can remember and now my son has inherited the longing. I was suddenly filled with such disappointment that I could not contain it, tears flowed and sobs broke. My poor son, sat up in his chair, fully awake. “What is wrong?” a fearful voice asks, as if he did or said something horrible. I could only shake my head between gulps of air, trying to reassure him that this outburst was not caused by anything he did.
After excusing myself and I went to the bathroom to regain my composure. As I look into the mirror at my tear-stained face, I wonder if I was finally loosing my mind. This was not something I do. I usually have a tight grip on my emotions. I started to berate my reflection for being weak. And just like the tears, words spoke from my own lips and said to that sad face, “be kind”. Great, now I am talking to myself, truly I must be going insane. It took a little effort to regain control, bury the emotion deep and forget that it ever happen.
I meet with two different groups of women throughout the week and our main topic of conversation is how we think we that our family’s happiness is our responsibility. How we feel like such failures for not being everything to everyone. We express how we know this to be unrealistic and how foolish it is to beat ourselves up. We each comfort and reassure each other that we are doing the best we can. Yet, I have a sense that like me, they just bury it. Why do we think that since we are responsible for our loves ones that their whole destiny is based on how right we do everything? If they experience hurt or failure it is somehow our fault. And if they make wrong decisions, it is because we failed to teach them the right values.
I carry so much baggage of guilt and shame for not doing more, for not being more, and for not having every moment perfectly orchestrated. I felt like a failure as a mother for not providing memorable family meals. I feel overwhelmed with grief that I will never have a complete family dinner because we lost one child. A regret that becomes so huge that I cannot fight it as it falls upon me and it spills over into the time I was spending with my youngest. Regret has away of robbing me of my present.
Frustrated because I cannot find the answer, I walk the gardens to see what is blooming. As I walk past my garage I spook a robin from its nest. She is reusing a nest that was built last year in the gutter elbow alongside our garage. Last year, every time we open the garage door or use the front door it would fly away to the safety of the nearby oak. I can only imagine the stress the bird feels. I wonder if it is the same bird and it has forgotten what a poor choice she had made. As I watch the bird watch me from high up in the oak tree, I realize that is exactly what I am doing. I will myself to forget instead of learn. I beat myself up for not getting it right the first time and bury the emotion until it become so big that it cannot be contained. I am like this crazy bird, making the same mistake over and over. Forgetting instead of forgiving.
I keep telling myself to forgive myself and to lower my expectations, but what I am doing is forcing myself to deny the emotion, by turning it off or overpowering it. To be stronger than it and if it becomes bigger than I can handle, I criticize myself for being weak. Denying is forgetting. Forgiving is allowing the emotion to be felt and to even embrace it. Cry over it, acknowledge it, and grow from it.
Maybe the robin bird remembers the nest and all the activity that goes on here. Maybe it knows that it has to only fly to the oak tree and soon the threat will leave and it may return. She doesn’t have to stress about having the perfect place for a nest, she learns to deal with what she has. As I watch her from her perch, I allow the tears to flow and I embrace the emotion of regret. I allow it to flow right out of me.
When I come face to face with this emotion, I can see it for what it really is. I can admit that I could have done things better. But if I were to dig deeper, I would find the truth. If I were perfect at everything, people would love me. I have put those conditional strings on love and it is wrong. And as I do that, it gives the impression to those around me that I too love conditionally. And they in turn feel like they have to be perfect to receive my love. And nothing is further from the truth.
When seen in this light, I understand what the Pastor was saying today in church about becoming humble and accept forgiveness. When we can’t forgive ourselves for things beyond our control, what does that teach those around us?
When regret takes root, it grows like a weed and contaminates the garden of the soul. If left uncheck it will take over and one would be left with nothing but sorrow. Do I wish I had family meals in the garden with candles flickering and plenty of laughter to go around? Do I wish I could look across that table and in the glow of the flame see the grin on my son’s face as he shares jokes with his siblings? I do and I can cry those tears of regret. Get it out of my system, because I have living to do and a table to set…