I should have … I could have … If only I would have …

How much time do you spend thinking about what might have been? This is a question that reminds me of a favorite country-western song. The lyrics include the phrases “I try not to think about what might have been, ’cause that was then … there’s no way to know what might have been.” Even though we know better, still we lament and often pine over what might have been.

Researchers on the subject of “regrets” have concluded the biggest secret regret is omission — not doing something you feel you should have done. In fact, researchers say we are often haunted by the inactions of our lives. The top four regrets stated by study participants are: not getting more education, career regrets, regrets in love, and not spending enough time with kids.

It seems harboring regret is not good for your health and reportedly leads to depression and even physical illness. A university study in the journal Psychology and Aging shows that older people who have less severe regrets have fewer health problems and sleep better at night, too.

Is there ever a time when regret is positive and helpful? Certainly the lessons that can come with regrets and the wisdom we glean can help us make changes so we don’t repeat mistakes or bad choices. The famous parable of the “prodigal son” told by Jesus and recorded in Luke 15:11-24 illustrates the usefulness of regret that leads to genuine repentance and opens the door to progress.

It was the story of two sons. The younger son asked his father to give him his inheritance. Soon this young son headed out on his own, but it didn’t take him long to waste everything he had been given and end up penniless. Because the son was barely surviving, he recognized and admitted the error of his ways and longed to return to his father. He wanted to tell his father that although he was no longer worthy to be called his son, he hoped his father would hire him as a servant. But the father gave his son’s remorseful remarks little heed. He loved his son unconditionally and wanted only to celebrate his son’s safe return home.

I would imagine that the father was probably also inwardly grateful to witness his son’s humble and penitent return but was not the type of father who would have belabored his son’s regret. There would have been no productive reason to do so. I’m learning that this is also true for how I treat myself.

Call it failed expectations or perhaps lost opportunities, looking back on my life lately, I’ve been struggling to overcome feelings of regret. When I shared these feelings with my husband, he asked me, “What would you have done differently?” The crazy thing is that I actually didn’t have an answer. It’s not that I would want to change any particular one thing in my life. I’ve loved every moment of my life to this day. I’ve just been overcome with sadness and disappointment that somehow I’ve missed doing something or it’s too late to do some things. And I’ve been reliving this sadness daily.

I’m beginning to see what the father of the prodigal son must have known, that rehashing regret serves no good purpose. I can see that regret interferes with happy, productive living and restricts motivation to move forward. I’m realizing if there is something I really want to do, that I can do it. Nothing is stopping me but my own inaction.

The fact is, God has always been working out His purpose in my life, and there is no reason for me to think that His plan is not going to continue for the remainder of my days. There isn’t an end to God’s direction or the goodness He provides, so I certainly don’t need to fear any such end just because I’ve reached the so-called middle age of my life. No doubt, we can’t even begin to imagine all the good that God has for us. As Paul says, “Eye hath not seen, not ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

As always in my prayers, I’ve learned that I must begin with my view of God, and this view can help free me from any stifling feelings of needless regret. God is infinite good, and I am, as we all are, the expression of the Infinite. Everything God gives is also infinite. I guess I’ve been thinking of my experiences, or possibilities for experiences, as somehow finite, and yet God provides infinite possibilities for blessing our lives.

This is not a new lesson for me. I know I must change the view of myself from being limited or bewildered to what God is always knowing and seeing in me and for me. And I know this viewpoint will enable me to see the infinite possibilities that are indeed present now and in the future — possibilities that bring joy, fun, fulfillment, satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. So, I’m putting “what might have been” behind me and focusing my gaze on what is yet to be — on what I shall do, what I can do, what I will do.