No World for the Penitent and Regretful
When I was in college we used to hang out at The Old Worthen in Lowell, drinking pitchers of cheap beer and playing tunes on the juke box. Inevitably we’d play My Way by Frank Sinatra (written by Paul Anka) and sing the lyrics together in the most world-weary, seasoned way you can muster up when you’re only 21 or so and haven’t been knocked down a few times.
“Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption”
Regrets come with living life. You make trade-offs along the way, like getting married and raising children instead of crewing on some sailboat in the Greek Isles with nothing but a copy of The Odyssey with you. I may have thought of doing that once or twice around the time I was singing that song in that bar, and I’d blame it on the ghost of Jack Kerouac whispering in my ear. On the whole I’ll take the trade-off and don’t look back, unless prompted to. This morning I was prompted when two quotes in succession resonated for me. First up was a Joan Didion quote pulled from today’s entry in The Daily Stoic. Inspired, I drew more of it from a Brain Pickings blog after a quick search and offer some of it here:
“The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others — who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without… To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that deals with one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, the Phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commissions and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice, or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves… Character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.” – Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays
What jolted me was in Didion’s writing, besides the sheer brilliance of her prose, were two phrases in particular: counting up the sins of commissions and omission… and …the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice, or carelessness. Who of us, who’s lived a life of any tenure, not counted up the things we’ve done that we’d rather not have done, the things we didn’t do that we wish we had, and regret not taking the leap into some adventure out of laziness or fear? The older I get the more I say to myself and anyone who asks, just do it. If you aren’t betraying trust, breaking promises, or taking foolhardy risks, then just do it. Live with self-respect, do the right thing, accept responsibility for [your] own life.
And then minutes later I stumbled on this Thoreau quote, a portion of which I’d once posted in an old social media post from years ago, where he (not surprisingly) reminds himself similarly:
“There is a season for everything, and we do not notice a given phenomenon except at that season, if, indeed, it can be called the same phenomenon at any other season. There is a time to watch the ripples on Ripple Lake, to look for arrowheads, to study the rocks and lichens, a time to walk on sandy deserts; and the observer of nature must improve these seasons as much as the farmer his. So boys fly kites and play ball or hawkie at particular times all over the State. A wise man will know what game to play to-day, and play it. We must not be governed by rigid rules, as by the almanac, but let the season rule us. The moods and thoughts of man are revolving just as steadily and incessantly as nature’s. Nothing must be postponed. Take time by the forelock. Now or never! You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this, or the like of this. Where the good husbandman is, there is the good soil. Take any other course, and life will be a succession of regrets. Let us see vessels sailing prosperously before the wind, and not simply stranded barks. There is no world for the penitent and regretful.” – Henry David Thoreau, from his journal on April 24, 1859
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” – Marcus Aurelius
Thoreau wrote that 160 years ago as a reminder to himself, just as Marcus Aurelius wrote his own reminder in Meditations. Didion weighs in with her own message. By all means, live with character and self-respect, but do make the most of this opportunity you’ve been given. Living in the past is useless. Living in the future is delusional. There’s only now. Today.