An inevitable by-product of the process of spring-cleaning is the forced confrontation with one’s past. Bits of our souls reside in things: our daily possessions are talismans without feathers, amulets without strings. Their power lies in their ability to evoke nostalgia, to resurrect dead selves, to remind us that corpses do not always lie quietly—that some ghosts have to be exorcised time and again.
What this entails, of course, is letting go. Loosening our grip on the past is easy when the present offers brighter charms to grasp. But the danger in streamlining our histories lies in encountering the promising bits of self that could have been had we entered another door, opened another window, traveled another path . The questions these inflict—the aborted, the incomplete, the unfinished—in the manner of an accusation, is: Why did you not choose me? Why did you not complete me? Why did you forego my offer to make you happy?
The tragedy of our lives is that we will never know. We are given one life (just one!), and a brief one at that, and we try so hard not to not make mistakes. Every passing year increases the pressure to justify our choices: we overburden our present with the task of validating the past, and we are left bitter, exhausted, guilty, remorseful.
But what is regret, if not a refusal to believe in the extravagance of grace, in the existence of a logic beyond the rational calculus of choice and deliberation, in the possibility that “the heart has reasons that reason cannot know”?* We remain forever partially opaque ourselves: our past choices mystify us and mortify us and we whip ourselves into an agony with the question why. But opacity does not preclude wisdom. There is a sense to things beyond what we can see, and overcoming regret lies in surrendering to the invisible, moment after moment and day after day.
And even at the end of our lives, we will never be soothed by the balm of certainty, but we will be granted the consolation of conviction—that all of it, without exception, was meant to be.
* This lovely little quote comes from the French mathematician, philosopher and physicist Blaise Pascal.