“What have you to say that you did not say at our last meeting? Or, perhaps you have things to unsay?” Two former friends are speaking together in Tolkien’s “The Lord Of The Rings” when the above statement is made. You will recognize, of course that the second question is simply an impossibility. I was reminded of this imaginary exchange as a friend today remarked of very real regret and of words that cannot be unsaid. His sadness led me to reflect. I have a closet full of things I have said which I want back; a closet full of actions I have carried out which I want undone. A few of them happened many, many years ago, but still I recall the moments and hours of anguish they caused. After years have passed, I still see pain in faces and hurt in eyes.
My memories go back to early childhood and an encounter with a (then) young lady who was trying to get me and a brother to do what was right. The young lady was slightly mentally handicapped, but she knew right from wrong and also knew our parents and what they expected of us. I remember as she took us by the hands and led us home, how we used the flexible sticks we grabbed as we were led along to hit her on the legs and back. I was four. I would like to undo that.
I won’t bore you with the litany of cruel and thoughtless acts and words throughout my early life. Suffice it to say that there were many. Quite a few of them can be brought to mind without much effort, others come at odd moments, triggered by conversations and life situations. Cruelty to kind teachers, to kids who were different, to siblings…all these memories still have the power to bring regrets and recriminations, though they occurred years ago. I want to undo those stupid and senseless deeds. They are accomplished and I am unable to erase them.
As an adult, the thoughtless acts and words have continued. I recall events with my children, both in younger years and as they advanced through their adolescent stages, for which I would gladly issue a recall. But, they are gone beyond recall; acts completed and words already formed and spoken. Sarcasm used on young children yields hurt spirits, selfishness on my part forms bitterness and resentment. I want all of those acts and words back, but I can’t snatch them out of memory.
Just last week at the dinner table, while speaking with my now adult children, in stubbornness I insisted that I was correct regarding a subject about which I knew nothing. I would prefer that the conversation had never taken place, but it did. In my memory, the words still hang out there. I wish I could just pluck them out of the air and have them disappear. It’s not possible.
Do you understand why my heart is pained as my friend makes two simple statements today? “Filled with regret.” And later, “Words cannot be unsaid.” I want to fix it for him, to tell him what I know about forgiveness and grace, but I cannot. I do know about forgiveness and grace. I have experienced both. Still, I feel the pain of failure, of relationships damaged. God’s forgiveness and grace erase the punishment for sinful acts, but the temporal consequences remain. Our lives are filled with regrets and sadness as a result.
Is it dark enough for you yet? Do you feel hopeless? That was not my intent. You see, here is what I know beyond the regret. Hurtful words spoken cannot be unsaid, but they can be overshadowed by loving apologies and by constructive conversations that follow such apologies. Angry actions cannot be taken back, but they can be blended into a palette of loving deeds and a consistent walk that demonstrates the grace which has been shown to us individually. Will we forget? No. It seems certain to me that the memory of pain we caused is much stronger to us than in the memories of those who suffered the pain, if we have taken steps to make things right. I have spoken to my children at various times about the events that live in my memory and they assure me that either they have no remembrance of the events or that they are forgiven. If others can forgive me, I should be able to do the same and let those painful memories go. Not as if they never happened, but as if they are no longer a focal point in my past.
I’m not an artist, but I love paintings. I enjoy watching artists at work. They take dead, monotonous colors and, putting those individual colors onto a drab canvas, they blend and draw until a scene takes shape. Have you ever seen an artist who has made a mistake? They don’t throw away the canvas. They don’t get a rag and wipe away the error. They don’t even deny the existence of the flaw, but they use it constructively instead. They blend the erroneous stroke into the painting, working in other colors and shades. Before you know it, an expert couldn’t point out the errant stroke. The finished work of art still includes the error, perhaps a raft of them, but its beauty is unmarred; instead incorporating those mistakes into the tableau, the completed picture.
That’s how life is. Regrets and all, we take life as it comes, acknowledging our mistakes and sins. As we build and repair relationships, the problems fade into the whole fabric, becoming in some ways, part of its beauty. Not that our angry words and selfish actions are beautiful, but the whole has beauty because of grace, and forgiveness, and second chances to get it right.
No regrets? Ha! I have lots of those. There will undoubtedly be more. But I also have the joy of seeing those regrets fade into the background when we are forgiven and move forward to face the challenges of life.
Perhaps, it’s not the way I would have preferred, but it will do.
“To err is human, to forgive, Divine.”
(Alexander Pope~English poet~1688-1744)
“To err is human, but when the eraser wears out ahead of the pencil, you’re overdoing it.”