(This essay was originally posted on May 3, 2011.)
At dinner the other night, my daughter asked, “Mom, what is the one thing you would change from your past?”
My husband’s fork paused midair. “Pretty deep question for dinner conversation.”
Emma shrugged. “I was just wondering.”
“Well,” I told her. “Let me think about it for a minute.”
I pushed the food around my plate, and probed my past for missteps and roads not taken. In a way, it was unfamiliar territory, because I don’t spend a lot of time mucking around in regret. I love these words of wisdom: “When I am old and sitting in my rocking chair, I don’t want to be thinking about all I regret not doing. I want to be thinking about what I regret doing.” I tend to lean forward into life, sometimes without much forethought and sometimes with a bit too much intensity, but I rarely look back with regret.
But suddenly, I am struck by the memory of a horrible road trip my husband and I took some 25 years ago. While visiting his parents in the Bay Area from Minnesota, where we were living at the time, we decided to take a side trip over to Mammoth Lakes located along the eastern border of California. Stephen had visited there before, and wanted to share with me this area that he’d fallen in love with. The map showed that it was a six-hour drive through the mountains on roads that were marked “Closed for Winter.” It was early spring, so, being from the midwest, I assumed they’d be open.
Of course, they were not, and wouldn’t be for several more months, even though we tried each one. So instead of going through the mountains, we had to drive the long way around them. As the drive got longer and longer, stretching from six hours to almost ten, I grew more and more frustrated–struggling against the reality that our trip was becoming something different from what I’d planned. The tension mounted as we drove. By the time we crested the pass leading into the town of Lee Vining just north of Mammoth Lakes, Stephen and I hadn’t been on speaking terms for several hours.
This was truly unfortunate, because as we cruised down the sharp grade into town, the sun was just setting over Mono Lake. The whole lake, spread thinly over a huge expanse, was illuminated in an eerie orange and pink glow. The towers of limestone emerged from the water like beings from another world. It was a truly magnificent sight, a breathtaking scene, and yet, even in the face of all that beauty, I could not let go of my agenda, of my suffering, of my anger at the situation. I was like a waterskier who had fallen but wouldn’t release the rope, and was being dragged along behind the boat. It was uncomfortable, painful, and embarrassing, but I was too stubborn and too inflexible to let go.
Although this is just one experience that stands out in my memory, I know that there are many more moments in my life that I have missed, disregarded, or thrown away, because I would not let go of the handle. I was more determined to hang on, thinking I would somehow force things to be how I wanted them to be, instead of appreciating how they were. Unfortunately, many of these moments included my husband.
When dinner was almost finished, I cleared my throat. “I guess I wish I would have appreciated earlier just how lucky I am to have your dad as my husband,” I told Emma. I wish in the early years of our marriage I would have spent less time trying to change Stephen, trying to change myself, and feeling frustrated by the sometimes bumpy path that led to our future. I wish I’d just been glad Stephen was by my side, and trusted fully that it would all work out one way or another.
According to Neal Roese, psychologist and author of the book If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity, “regret pushes people toward corrective action,” and creates “hope for the future.”
Unfortunately, the regret I felt at missing a shared witnessing of a magical sunset over Mono Lake, took years and many more missed opportunities for me to appreciate that moments, good or bad, are to be seized because soon, often too soon, they will be gone. It wasn’t until I had children, and life sped up to an unbelievably fast pace, that I began to fully learn this lesson, that I began to move toward corrective action.
Not long after our second child was born, I read a line from the Talmud Yerushalmi that said, “We will be held accountable for all the permitted pleasures we fail to enjoy.” I was brought up short. What did they mean by “permitted pleasures?” And how exactly was I going to be “held accountable?”
I kept this quote taped to my bathroom mirror, and tried to puzzle out why my scalp prickled every time I read it. In the serendipitous way the world works, around the same time our book club selected to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir entitled Eat, Pray, Love. The entire first third of the book, set in Italy, is devoted to Gilbert’s “pursuit of pleasure.”
The common definition of pleasure is “the state of feeling happiness, enjoyment, or gratitude.” What is more telling is the synonyms associated with pleasure: satisfaction, contentment, and gladness. Gilbert discovered that we Americans are not terribly familiar with the concept of pleasure. When we seek down time, we opt to be entertained: a few hours on the couch with corn chips, beer, and a line up of reality television, a vacation to Vegas to play the slot machines, or the latest ride-of-death at the local amusement park where they dangle you several hundred feet in the air, jerking you relentlessly to-and-fro until you lose all the money from your pockets and scream for mercy.
The night of our book club meeting there was a lively discussion about the idea of pleasure.
“I only allow myself two or three pleasures a week,” declared one member. She, like Gilbert, found that her “ingrained sense of Puritan guilt” kept her from embracing pleasure. Gilbert asks, “Do I really deserve pleasure?”
Many of us nodded in agreement. I tried to think of pleasures I allowed myself. It was hard to come up with a list.
Finally, the woman next to me, who had been silent during our discussion, said, “I have lots of pleasure in my life. In fact, I can think of thirty pleasures I allow myself every day.”
We all stared at her, astounded. “THIRTY PLEASURES!” we shouted. “A DAY????”
Her eyes got round and she laughed. “I was going to say fifty, but I didn’t want to shock anyone.”
Fifty pleasures. I was intrigued. Could I come up with fifty pleasures? The next week I made little booklets with blank pages except for the numbers one through fifty. I handed them out to everyone I knew, and encouraged them to make their own list of pleasures. As I scribbled in my little booklet, I began to understand the wisdom of the words from the Talmud Yerushalmi. It wasn’t that my life lacked pleasure, it was that I’d failed to recognize all the pleasures within my day. The first morning sip of tea. The sticky hand of my toddler slipped into mine. Reading while taking a bath. Sitting with my husband on the porch at the end of the day.
In discovering the permitted pleasures in my life, I also began to understand how I would be held accountable if I allowed them to slip by. I did not want to look back with regret and realize that I’d missed the moments in my life. Not only the moments of pleasure, but also the bits of every day ordinary, and even the bumpy, difficult times. I wanted to let go of the ski rope and see what happened.
I misplaced my little booklet long ago, but I keep a revolving list of daily pleasures in my head. My current favorite, even though it’s ordinary and something I will do hundreds of times before my children are fully grown, is drive my girls to school in the morning. Sometimes we don’t say much at all. Sometimes they will sing along with the radio. Sometimes they comment on the new snow on the mountain peaks, or ask me questions like what do I think happens when we die. Whatever our eight-minute morning commute brings, it gives me great pleasure just to be with them. To have the privilege of being their mom, to get to witness a unique moment of their sevenness and nineness, and to be privy to their dreams and an incubator for their ideas. As I drive in the morning carpool traffic, my heart swells with satisfaction, contentment, and gladness. It is a moment as beautiful as any sunset, and I watch it, fully accountable for the pleasure before me so there will be absolutely no regret.