Depending on who you talk to, retirement is considered as either a panacea of a life lived, or the road (short or long) to the end. If you are reading this as a retiree, you know exactly what I mean. If you are still gainfully employed. . .well, you’ll see. It is also a time for reflection, to look back at the life (lives) you have lived and contemplate the footprint you’ve left on this world. This reflection is satisfying and even enjoyable, but it soon wears off and you find yourself asking, as I have, the same question that probably most retired people have asked themselves” “What now?” The answer to this question varies of course as there are a myriad of factors to consider. Many people will have planned in advance for this day, but “planning” usually means securing your financial well-being once you stop working. I say this because I was recently researching this topic and came across “40 reflections on retiring well – quotes from retirees,” and one quarter of them were about money!
Let’s take a closer look at the word. Reflection is derived, in part from late Latin-reflexio(n-), from Latin-reflex– ‘bent back,’ from the verb reflectere. There are the usages associated with light and images – for example looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing your “reflection, or, what I like to call: “What you see is what you got!” My focus here is more closely related to the meaning derived from ‘bent back,’ as in a reflection or reflecting back on one’s life, a favorite occupation for many retirees. Trust me when I tell you that I have spent a great deal of time and energy trying to not start conversations with: “I remember when. . .” All I can say is that it’s tougher than you think!
Although I am not a person who looks back in order to say: “Oh it was so much better back then, or, it was so much easier, or it was so much” . . .etc., etc., it is only natural to reflect on one’s past, especially with all this freed up time that you now have. It can be a very positive and life-affirming exercise to look at your accomplishments and the lives that you have touched. The downside though is letting the word “regrets” enter into your reflection. Spending too much time on what you didn’t do, wishing that you could do something over again, is often a recipe for disaster. The article I mentioned above has a quote nestled under its title: “It is never too late to be what you might have been,” a loaded aphorism if there ever was one!
This recent obsession, if you will, with self-reflection is, ironically enough, a by-product of my recent retirement freeing up my time to pursue one of my passions: reading. Before I go any further, let this act as a disclaimer that I am going to be revealing details about a book that you may have not read and want to read. You have been warned! The book in question is Matt Haig’s recent bestseller: Midnight Library (Penguin Publishing Group, 2020). In short, this book is about (my interpretive list) three things: Lives lived, paths not taken, and regrets. Wrapped up in all of these are the choices we make, and the choices made for us. I have said, on numerous occasions and to many different people, that I believe regrets to be an absolute waste of time. Why dwell on what could have been, what should have been, what I could have done, what I should have done, instead of focusing on what “is” and what you “are” doing? Again, the answer is complicated and, in part, exactly what Haig is endeavoring to explore in his novel. Perhaps, he is saying through the protagonist of the book (Nora Seed), sometimes one needs to look back and examine the choices and decisions made and contemplate how taking a different path might have changed your life. To some, this may seem to be a frivolous activity, for others, like the protagonist, it is path to recognize that the life you have is the right one for you, but you need to recognize this first before you can live that life to its fullest.
As soon as I began reading the book, my attention was drawn to the word “regrets” and the phrase “the paths we choose.” My focus on the single word is easy to explain as I have always felt that regrets are just not worth it and as I started to think about why, I remembered a song from my past written by Paul Anka (1968), but made famous by Frank Sinatra, called “My Way.” The second verse goes like this:
Regrets, I've had a few But then again too few to mention I did what I had to do And saw it through without exception I planned (I planned) Each charted course (each course) Each careful step (each careful step) Along the byway (along the byway) An more, mch more than this I did it my way.
If you started singing or humming the song as you were reading, you’re not alone! Let’s face it, we all have regrets, some more than others. It is really only how we deal with them that differs and the degree to which we let these regrets enter into and, in a worst-case scenario (as we witness when reading the novel), take over our lives. When we are first introduced to Nora Seed in Haig’s novel, she is caught in a spiraling sea of regret, questioning her choices in life and her current situation, which she feels is hopeless. Based on this reflection, she decides that this life that she is living is no longer worth the effort and takes an overdose of a prescribed medication. However, instead of this being the end, it is really the beginning of the rest of her life as she will soon realize that she “did it her way!
In a similar way, the phrase “the paths we choose” resonated with me and triggered yet another memory, this time a poem by Robert Frost “The Road Not Taken” (1915). The last stanza goes like this:
I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood and I - I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.
My recollection of this poem when I first started reading was rewarded by the author as the poem and these lines were referenced around halfway through the book! It should not really be much of a surprise that this phrase and the single word became my focus as I see the two as inextricably linked in more ways than one. Firstly, many of our life paths, especially when we are young, are chosen for us – where we are born, the family we are born into, what schools we attend, etc., etc. – and while we may have regrets from this early period of our lives, those may have more to do with what those immediately around us have done, unless of course you were stealing food off your little brother’s plate when he wasn’t looking. . .well, yeah, you own that one! Secondly, when paths and regrets really start to kick in is when we start making decisions (small and big) for ourselves, and while these decisions are certainly mitigated by your circumstances whatever they may be, they are still your decisions. Good, bad, or somewhere in the middle, they are yours.
Nora Seed’s “beginning” starts with her awakening (double entendre deliberate) in a library, which she soon realizes is her old High School library, and is greeted by Mrs. Elm, her now much older High School librarian. Mrs. Elm’s role in the novel, much like the role of elders in our own lives, is not necessarily to tell us what we should do but provide an environment – a path if you will – that hopefully we will follow. Put another way, Mrs. Elm acts as the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage,” which is, in a way, a nod to current pedagogical practice. The library’s books also serve to remind us of the highly problematic conflation of the terms ‘information’ and ‘knowledge.’ By this I mean that books contain “information,” but that information does not become “knowledge” until you do something with it. And in this day and age, when we are being bombarded with information, this is a very important distinction to make!
The library that Nora now finds herself in is full of “books” that document all the different lives that she could have lived (information) and as soon as she opens one of these, she is immediately transported into that life for a measure of time for a second chance to better understand that experience (knowledge). As is the case with all of the trips back in time, something happens, some life-changing event, that transports her back to the library to start the process all over again in another life unlived. Just past the halfway point in the book, after one of Nora’s excursions to the past, we find her ruminating about her life:
Equidistant. Equidistant. Equidistant. Not aligned to one bank or the other. That was how she had felt most her life. Caught in the middle. Struggling, flailing, just trying to survive while not knowing which way to go. Which path to commit to without regret. (190)
For me, there are two striking things about this passage: Firstly, the metaphor of life as a river; Secondly, and perhaps even more poignant given Nora’s predicament, is the suggested image of being in the middle of a river, “equidistant” from the banks, and unable to decide which of the banks does not contain regret. This conundrum is often referred to colloquially as “up shit creek without a paddle!” The irony of course is that no matter which bank you are eventually able to get to, there are going to be regrets. Why, might you ask? Because it is human nature to second-guess oneself, and there are always going to be regrets no matter what choice one makes!
Nora makes quite a few journeys back in time to see how certain choices she didn’t make might turn out, and over the course of these trips she makes two key observations: 1. “You don’t have to understand life. You just have to live it (p.218); 2. “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see” (p.258). One could argue that these two ways of seeing and being in the world need not only be remembered but internalized. Towards the end of the book, when Nora is finally figuring out that the life, she now has is the one she was meant to have, she comes to the following epiphany:
But it is not the lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself. It's the regret that makes us shrivel and wither and feel like our own and other people's worst enemy. (277)
This realization brings us full circle to reflecting on one’s past. It is pretty safe to say that at some point in our lives we are going to look back, we are going to (perhaps) try to relive the “glory years,” and we are going to want to occasionally escape back to that time. And it’s probably a healthy thing to do as long as you remember the following for the trip back. While it’s fine to think about where, what, and when, things happened, and of course who was present, if indeed there was another person or persons around at the time, it is absolutely imperative that you also remember why! Because it is the why that puts the other w’s into their proper context.
Given the above, the past, your past is best to be used as a blueprint for the future, your future. Are there things from our lives we don’t want to repeat, things that we are not proud of, mistakes we have made? Absolutely! However, what needs to be kept in mind is that while past actions and events can’t be changed, blueprints can be altered to create a better end result. Just ask any architect! I’ll leave the last words to Sonny Fedora, Dany Howard, and Andrea Triana’s refrain from their song “All or Nothing:”
No, we ain't never gonna get back our Yesterdays So give me all or nothing.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll take all!
Los Angeles 2022