Many folks use the beginning of a new year to make new or renew old resolutions.  I have made, broken, remade, and finally quit making resolutions. Instead I use this time to look back and do some soul searching. 

Looking back, most folks will find a mixture of success and failure—that’s par for the course. However, it’s the possibilities littering the crossroads of our lives that cause the most regret, angst, and self- recrimination. 

Ah, me, those crossroads. Dwelling on the shoulda-coulda-woulda is an exercise in futility. This trio of words can stall us mid-journey or, heaven forbid, freeze us into inaction .  

The first line in M. Scotts Peck’s book, “The Road Less Traveled,” reads: “Life is Difficult.” Yes, it can be.  But once we admit that life is full of twists and unexpected turns, those stops and stalls are no longer of great consequence. Dr. Peck encourages us to remain open to new perspectives  and cease living on auto pilot.

Those who are bereaved often feel the tug of regret after a loved one dies. We “shoulda”  seen it coming, “woulda” done more, “coulda” loved more. Most  regrets are short-lived when examined under the microscope of truth. But for some folks it can be a heavy chain that can pull one down into depression.

Regret is a universal emotion. Failed relationships, poor judgement calls, missed opportunities and (fill in the blank.)  Yet to live with regret is to be mired in a past that cannot be changed. Regret can have a damaging effect on the mind and body. Sometimes it can ripen into fruitless rumination and keeps folks from engaging in life.

I’ve often wondered if I had not married so young, what road I would be on today. I love my family; however in retrospect, I did it the hard way.  I married at 19 —the norm back then— and  was a mother at 20.  

Once my sons were in kindergarten, I was easily bored with housework and attending coffee klatches with other young moms.  I began working part-time but still aspired to be more.  With my then-husband George’s encouragement, I enrolled in an evening nursing program and continued my  part-time job during the day.  

Six years later, I was working in a field that I love. I was content — that is, until a young women physician joined the clinic . Encountering a woman physician was rare.                                                                              

I was bowled over by her compassion and dedication to our patients.  While assisting Doctor P……  I had a passing thought:  “I want to be her.”  That thought became more than passing, it became pressing.

However, it remained my secret.  I toyed with the idea of entering medical school but my secret froze within me.  Although I was young enough to begin a new career, I never followed through. 

Decades later,  I felt a call to become a priest in the Episcopal Church.  After much soul searching and mentoring by my parish priest, I applied and was accepted into the Diaconate. 

Fate stepped in.  My husband George was diagnosed with a rare and fatal disease. George was dead within four months. This life-shattering event changed the future course of my life forever. 

Did you ever wonder what would have happened if you married your college sweetheart?  A friend of mine did more than wonder.  After she was divorced for a couple of years, she went online and looked up her old flame.

She was all shook up at the prospect of seeing him again.  By the time they were to rendezvous at a restaurant in Manhattan, she convinced herself that she was reuniting with her soul mate.

Ah, me!  Those old flames can come with a can of gasoline. They fizzle and die very quickly.  Upon meeting, they both realized that what they experienced in college could not be recaptured.  Life took  them on different paths that could never converge. 

But then again, I heard a success story.  A widowed friend, who reunited with her high school sweetheart,  was able to pick up where they left off some 50 years earlier. 

Many times we flirt with an idea, a choice, or a new way of life.  We may decide that the new year is a good time to begin. We may begin only to fail sometime in late January — or not begin at all.  Many of us have taken this route, littering our journey through life with missed opportunities.  

Scientists have looked at factors that affect the intensity of regret over a lifetime.  They found that people had a greater frequency of regrets about the lack of action they took in their lives.

Short of building a time machine, we cannot go back and change the past. We can, however, reflect on our regrettable choices, or lack of choices, learn from them and vow to never carry them forward into our future.  

If you are prone to rumination (as I am) here is something from poet philosopher John O’Donohue worth pondering: 

“If we could but realize the sureness around us, we would be much more courageous in our lives.  The frames of anxiety that keep us caged would dissolve.  We would live the life we love and in that way, day by day free our future from the weight of regret.”

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Celia Iannelli is a native New Yorker enjoying a second career — in 'retirement' — as a freelance writer. She lives in Jamesport.