Coulda! Woulda! Shoulda!
by Ruth Ann Cramer
While perusing my favorite section of the store — fashion jewelry, 80% off — I overheard two women searching for bargains. The first lamented, “You know, I should’ve given Mother’s pearl broach to Aunt Lillian for her birthday. She just loved that broach; she’d wanted it for years. I never liked it; I could’ve given it to her. I’m so sorry I didn’t.”
The other chided, “But she died two months later. You’d never have gotten it back from the relatives.”
“But, think how happy I would’ve made her.” the first sighed. “I should’ve given it to her! Now, I’ll have to give it away, just to stop feeling so stingy.”
At the funeral of a mother of four killed in her forties by a drunken driver, her teenage daughter wailed in her father’s arms, “I told her I hated her! I told her to drop dead! I should’ve said I was sorry. But I was mad. If I’d known I’d never see her again, I would’ve told her I loved her!”
A concerned woman knew her best friend’s husband was having an affair — a secret many knew, but kept quiet. The man had convinced his wife their troubled marriage was all her fault. One day, when the wife cried out in deep pain to her friend, the friend blurted out the husband’s secret.
Instead of the wife stopping her self-blame when told of her husband’s deception, she sank into despair and attempted suicide. All accused the concerned friend of causing the wife’s despair. Assailed and ostracized — haunted by could’ves and should’ves — the friend finds herself isolated and paralyzed by regret and remorse.
REGRET AND REMORSE
Why do we kick ourselves? Why look back, again and again, second-guessing what we could have, and should have, done? Whether minor or serious, causing us a mere headache or heart-wrenching concern, we all suffer doubts that haunt us. We worry till we’re worn, and attention is given.
What makes us fret, stew and beleaguer ourselves? Why cling to regret that’s transient and skin-deep one moment, and the next; weighs us with such bone-weariness, life is thought to be a burden?
When we’ve apologized to others with sincere contrition and made our amends, why not accept that we’ve been forgiven, and all is well? Why replay the ugly scenes in our minds, etching wounds ever deeper? Why not just say, “What’s done is done. There’s nothing more I can do.”
Even the words of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, fail to heal us: “Which of you, by worrying, can add a single moment to his lifespan?” (Mt 6:27 NAB)
Sadness wraps us in fog we can’t wave away. Despondency broods our spirit, failing to dissipate no matter how we try to ignore it, or “buck up!”, or “think good thoughts!”
Life brings disappointments: Opportunities not taken . . . promises and possibilities unrealized . . . hopes and dreams that fade. We become dissatisfied with everything and everyone. We see life and God with discontent.
Regret turns and points our finger at ourselves. We listen to our self-reproach; flog ourselves with self-accusation and self- condemnation. In our minds, such critical assessment becomes a Truth of Who I Am. When we look in the mirror and see ourselves as bad — or nothing — we accept that’s why we’re not loved. We reason that bad people and nothings don’t deserve love, acceptance and understanding. We come to see ourselves as My Own Worst Enemy.
In the lies of Hell, these lies are its most used, believed and effective.
Guilt, real or imagined, pricks this time; stabs the next. Guilt we’ve confessed, but remains, makes us sick at heart; sick in spirit. I’m not speaking here of real guilt incurred by sin, to be dealt with by confession and repentance; this we must take to God. (See A Can Of Worms in The Sandbox) No, I’m exploring the roots of why we look back to say “I could have . . . I should have . . . I would have, if only . . . ” These are called regret and remorse.
Regret is a vague, “aching all over” in the mind and memory; a pain in the heart that may not make one responsible for a negative, but still haunts us.
Remorse brings a deeper sense of being guilty or responsible. It carries more intense personal pain and anguish; and a more definite sense of our wrongdoing, or wrong being. It’s more difficult to overcome; to walk away from and leave behind.
Both can be brought on by actions, or inactions, of the past; by disappointments, betrayals and failures in relationships, or painful situations that won’t let our minds, emotions and memories rest in peace.
Some forms more subtle and disquieting, hidden and elusive are still injurious to our minds, bodies, emotions and spirits. We need to recognize and deal with these human burdens; not just “put up with them”. When we’re free and at peace, we’re more receptive to the present and future possibilities God has in mind for us, for our good, and the building up of His Kingdom. God is eager to bring us healing and freedom; His Son’s death paid for it.
In ministry to others, we’ve found we become more vulnerable to regret and remorse through a powerful element we call denied needs. Forged in babyhood when our basic needs — being fed, bathed, cared for and loved — are ignored, disdained and denied, our natural human hope is raised . . . then dashed; raised . . . and dashed.
We reach up and out, as we humans are created to do, believing all is well . . . we’re good . . . people are good and love us. But, when our reaching out meets with “no”; when we again and again meet with denial, neglect, physical and emotional abuse, we try to make sense of it by wondering, “Is it because I’m not good, not worthwhile . . . not lovable?”
These negative responses to our expressions of basic human need, erode our belief in our intrinsic goodness, until we see no good in ourselves. We see nothing of worth — for no one has yet affirmed our goodness, our “worthwhile-ness”. Our needs, desires, possibilities and hopes for the future are seldom or never recognized, acknowledged or nurtured; and so, effectively die in us.
We find nothing to commend us. Not even, we, to ourselves.
PARADIGMS AND WORLDVIEW
In trying to learn how life works; and what and how we’re supposed to “be”, how we’re supposed to act, we develop responses called Paradigms. Paradigms are principles we grow to believe are true. We live by these beliefs and principles we consider “true”. We haven’t yet learned differently, so they become our way of handling life — our modus operandi, our methodology of behavior.
One paradigm we readily accept is to see ourselves at fault. Because we’re not mature enough to recognize another’s weakness, immaturity or sin, the only conclusion we can reach, especially when needs are denied, is “Something’s wrong with me”.
We reason, “If I were good, they wouldn’t treat me this way; so, I’m not good.” We assume we “don’t have what matters” and “can’t do anything right”. So, we readily accept blame — bringing regret and remorse. We chastise ourselves for reaching when we have little chance of being received. We accept that because we reach and there’s no reception . . . we shouldn’t reach at all.
Consider grade school sport: A child tries to compete; others ridicule and humiliate him. He’s unable to reason, my friends are not behaving well; I know I can achieve; I’ll keep trying till I do. Instead, the child sees the failure in him, chastises himself for even trying, regrets his behavior; vows not to reach out again — and lives in frustration and pain.
Rejected often enough, our regret and remorse compound. We think and feel it, even if we can’t express it: If only I was good . . . better . . . smarter; more talented, handsome or beautiful — a more worthwhile human being — then, they would love me.
The Liar from Hell assists with hellish answers to how life works; the Accuser of the Brethren inflicts blame. In weakness, we accept these temptations. As damaging human beliefs are insinuated, drilled or beaten into us; as needs and possibilities are discouraged, subconsciously or deliberately denied, regret and remorse increase multifold. Or as we’ll see — sometimes deliberately sabotaged. May I share a story?
Matthew was working in a foreign country; he took me along. I stayed in our base hotel while he worked for days elsewhere. One cool morning, I took a walk and passed an arts center — its only day closed that month. Its manager, I’ll call Sharon, saw my disappointment through the window and invited me in. We had a wonderful visit; far more instructive than it would have been on a normal day, jammed with people.
At lunch, Sharon’s talk turned to arts, media and entertainment, then to personal matters. She shared deep regret that she’d been unable to achieve her dream of becoming a professional opera singer — not to achieve celebrity status, she assured me, but because she felt she was made to sing, and singing was all she wanted to do.
She’d won many auditions for top roles, but for some reason, the possibilities offered never brought her closer to the fulfillment she so desired. She always seemed to “just miss” her “big chance”. I sensed she was haunted by confusion, and very near despair.
Listening with my outer ear to the person, and my inner ear to the Holy Spirit dwelling within, I prayed, asking God if I should encourage her to go deeper, just let her talk, or pray with her. The Spirit prompted me to prod more deeply and ask about her mother. Sharon praised her mother as her manager, but I sensed her uneasiness to go further; so we prayed together and hugged goodbye with promises to write.
GOD’S DEEPER MOVE
Deep in sleep, my late nap was ended by an abrupt knock on the door. She stood there, her handkerchief wet, her eyes red and swollen. I invited her in and sent down for tea.
We talked for hours as she poured out her frustrations, disappointments and regrets. Even though she believed God had gifted her and called her to sing, time and time again, when offered important lead roles and prestigious contracts, she turned the offers down for reasons she could not understand.
She was desperate, not knowing what was wrong with her. Was she sick? Was she stupid? Or paranoid? She wasn’t afraid to sing, she cried. Her anxiety, regret and the bitterness of regret caused harsh self-accusations of “Why did I?” and “Why didn’t I?” The continuous confusion and self-blame of Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda, had driven her to thoughts of suicide.
When I shared my deep sense that, possibly, her mother was involved in the problem, she protested, “No, my mother couldn’t be the problem. She’s my best fan.”
Her mother was a “near-famous” opera singer who’d won many “smaller, but good” roles. As Sharon’s professional manager, she looked out for Sharon’s good, not wanting her daughter to be taken advantage of, be disappointed, or set her hopes too high.
Sharon grew up with an absent father and an emotionally-distant mother who taught her not to expect much from life, or herself. My deep sense as I listened was that the mother could be, motivated, not by care and concern, but by jealousy. Jealous of her daughter’s beauty and superior talent, jealous her daughter was offered roles she, herself, had sought and failed to win.
Sharon struggled to explain why she refused to audition for roles she knew her mother wanted; and though encouraged by the professionals to do so, never auditioned for a role her mother had already sung. It seemed clear she meant to avoid professional comparison, and the mother’s envy.
She said it was true that, while her mother had sung many roles, she’d not advanced past a certain point professionally. True, her mother was said to have a nice voice; but the daughter, a superb voice — even, the “gift of a lifetime”. The mother was asked to sing at weddings, funerals and minor concerts, but the daughter had been offered stellar roles with world-renowned symphonies. The differences seemed most clear.
“My mother says her critical attitude has always been for my good.” Sharon assured me. “She tells the truth about me.” Her voice became a whisper. “But, I think God is saying it’s time I admit another truth — a truth, I see now, I’ve been hiding from myself.”
She took a deep breath. “From my earliest years, I sensed her disappointment and anger that she didn’t win roles she felt her talent deserved. I see . . . that because I loved my mother, and knew what brought her such pain and disappointment . . . I’ve made a vow that, during her lifetime, I will deliberately achieve less than she, so she’ll always be the center of attention, the important one; and be at peace.”
Wow. Thank God for God! As she’d listened with an open mind and heart — and relinquished all the Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda! hounding her — the Holy Spirit revealed the reasons for her confusion, anxiety and conflicted desire.
Most all of us have made hidden vows in our lives. They drive us, shape our thinking and behavior; dictating to us how we see ourselves and the world. Even though we have no idea they exist; and we seldom remember making them.
To be set free, Sharon had to renounce the vows she’d made. This proved most difficult for her. She was afraid of what freedom might do to her, and how it might change her relationship with her mother. Isn’t it amazing what we humans will do, rather than face reality and truth as seen through God’s enlightenment, and deal with them?
When she asked the Holy Spirit to minister to her, Sharon received freedom. Her immediate desire was to rush out and audition for something! For anything!
HEALING OF MEMORIES
While being prayed for, in Healing of Memories, she remembered how, as far back as in her baby crib, her mother denied her needs, discouraged her, and later — could it be? — even prevented her from receiving the good meant for her. She shared a story of her deepest regret that still grieved and haunted her.
She’d auditioned for the soloist position she desired most, in a world-renowned opera with a world-class symphony. Predicted to win, she was thrilled to learn she’d been given the role. At the celebration to announce “the greatest news of her life”, her mother shocked everyone by reacting with horrified dismay.
It seemed, that as a surprise birthday gift for her daughter, Sharon’s mother had booked a most exclusive luxury cruise. Already paid for with very expensive, non-refundable tickets, the cruise would “just happen” to keep them on the other side of the world the same dates as the opera production’s performances. Alarmed by her mother’s overwrought behavior, Sharon decided she had no choice; she must take the cruise.
When, with deep regret, Sharon turned down the cherished role, the symphony Conductor warned that she should not audition if she could not follow through. She’d not be offered other roles after music professionals learned she had — once again — refused a role for which she’d auditioned and won.
She spent the cruise in her cabin, crying; obsessing on how she could’ve, would’ve, should’ve! been on stage, singing her heart out. Her hopes for fulfillment hung, gasping for air by a thin, ugly thread, waiting to be stretched till it shredded and snapped.
While she’d earlier suspected that her mother might be exacting “payback” because she was jealous, Sharon scolded herself for being “suspicious”, and “thinking bad thoughts”. As many good-hearted, well-intentioned people do, she’d not taken into account, her loved one’s human weakness and sin.
Regardless of her mother’s culpability, which God, alone, would judge, Sharon had to forgive her mother for acting against her: Forgiveness, as a major block to healing, is a must. (See Forgive! … Or Not in The Sandbox) Her burdensome frustration, regret and remorse were released. The session ended close to the next morning, and my visitor left at peace.
Did Sharon’s mother act deliberately? Perhaps. Yet, many times, a person wronging another suspects they’re doing wrong, but they’re unwilling, or unable, to stop because of their own pain, anger, bitterness — their own regret and remorse.
See what holding on to regret and remorse can do? And, why the Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda’s in life, must go? A human body won’t heal by letting a tumor remain; the tumor has to go. So, too, our burdens and baggage, our bastions of despair must be brought into the light, not to be dwelt on, but dealt with — and to be healed.
LET HEALING BEGIN
To aid in our healing by Jesus and the Holy Spirit, consider with me the following steps — praying as you make notes.
- Make a list of each regret and remorse you suffer — from greatest to smallest. Don’t hide anything from yourself; be truthful. Give each a name you’ll recognize.
- Look closely at the roots, asking what particular emotion, memory or automatic reaction caused each regret and remorse to erupt.
- Ask the Holy Spirit, “What really happened?” See the truth with His eyes.
- Write down how these regrets and feelings of remorse affect your life today?
- Ask: What in me allows each of these to continue? What gives them place in me? What keeps me hanging on to them?
- Ask: Do I understand and agree that each must be rooted out?
- Ask: Am I willing to give up these hurts, disappointments, betrayals, so on — and especially, my mistakes?
- Ask: Am I willing to forgive those who’ve caused my regret and remorse? Will I forgive myself?
- Take each person, situation and memory before the Lord; and forgive.
- Renounce each regret and remorse. Resolve to renounce all temptations to reconsider them, or take them back.
- Ask for, and receive, the healing of the Lord.
- Praise God for His goodness and steadfastness on our behalf. Thank The Spirit for being our Comfort and Inspiration; the Son for His death that assures us.
IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER
If you again experience something that triggers old responses, immediately take it before the Lord, and deal with it. The Holy Spirit doesn’t want erroneous rot to linger, poisoning us and leaching detriment into our souls. The Holy Spirit wants us to recognize lies as untruth from Hell, and not listen. The Holy Spirit wants us healed. The Holy Spirit wants us freed, so we might receive more.
Regret and remorse will keep us from living in the freedom God’s grace brings. If we hold onto so much regret and remorse that we’re not open, we must ask again, Are they really more important than my freedom?
We can’t be like Lot’s wife, who, instead of moving ahead in spite of being warned, just had to turn and focus on the havoc of death and destruction behind her.
Or like Synagogue leaders who couldn’t, wouldn’t, wrench themselves from old, sterile ways to accept God’s new revelation of His Son and Messiah. They found themselves thrown to the temple floor when the curtain split on The Day It Was Finished.
Jesus tells the story of ten virgins. The five wise ones were ready when the bridegroom arrived, and went in with him. The five foolish were gone! Back buying oil; and so, missed their one purpose in being there. They weren’t ready to go on when they needed to go on. Jesus finishes the lesson:
“Watch therefore for you know neither the day or the hour.” (Mt 25:13 RSV)
Yes, come alive! Look ahead! See with tomorrow’s eyes. Forget the old visions. Reject the old responses. Let yourself feel new emotions of hope, confidence and freedom. Let these words of St. Paul renew you:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come.” (2Co 5:17 RSV)
Let there be new dreams! New inspirations! Birth a new release and fresh expression of creativity, for which the world may be waiting. Dare to experiment; to try and fail, to get up and go on again, and again.
Let there be happiness and laughter as we seek to share now with others — not waiting for them to discover us and love us — but we go out. We reach out.
We reach to hands, minds and needs that have yet to be answered, and received. Imagine the joy, the freedom — the love — generated in us, and by us; in them and by them. Love gives. Love heals. Love catches on.
Our God doesn’t dilly-dally with could’ves, would’ves or should’ves! Ours is a God who strides on ahead, and leads out in front. He follows His vision, in His way, and goes to where He wants to go.
To our beloved Shepherd and Lord, Who with gracious patience and love invites us to follow Him, we say: “Letting go our baggage of regret and remorse, we step out of the past and follow your lead — keeping our eyes on You, Oh Lord. With Your guidance and grace, we move on!