Editorial: ‘Wouldn’t change a thing’ just doesn’t add up

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Too bad people can’t jump into a year of late middle age—say, 57 or 63—and then go back to high school and live the rest of life in light of the knowledge they gained.

Totally ridiculous, isn’t it? But haven’t you wished you could have taken a sneak peek at adulthood early enough to shape your life?

knox newEditor Marv KnoxThis notion arises with friends from time to time. Usually, it happens over dinner, when someone asks a speculative-but-impossible question. If you knew then what you know now, …

• What would you pick for your college major?

• What career would you choose?

• How many children would you have?

• Where would you live?

• What denomination or religion would you adopt?

• What sport or hobby would you have taken up?

• “Who would you marry?” (OK, I’ve never heard that one. But I can’t

guarantee some haven’t thought it.)

Possibility and opportunity

Of course, we live only in the light of the present moment. One of the great challenges—and blessings—of parenthood is shining a huge light of possibility and opportunity out in front of children. Encouraging them to dream big dreams. Calling them to stretch beyond imagination. But still, even the offspring of parents who amp up those lights someday will say, “If only I’d known then what I know now ….”

Across decades, I’ve attended funerals where friends of the deceased said something like, “If she could live her whole life over again, she would not change a thing.”

For years, I received those words with misty-eyed amazement. How splendid to live a whole life and get it right the first time every time.

Now? I’m not so sure.

Doesn’t add up

While I mean no disrespect for long, happy lives (and don’t discount funeral-parlor hyperbole), “wouldn’t change a thing” just doesn’t seem to add up. If such a statement were true, then the person either (a) never reflected sufficiently on the myriad possibilities of life and/or (b) always played it safe, aiming not to make a mistake. Both options are corollaries.

Life is too huge, varied, wild, fantastic and unpredictable to live all the way through and not ask “What if?” If a person can’t look back through at least a few question marks, then she’s probably not looking ahead with a sense of wonder.

And wonder is essential, whether you’re reflecting on life already lived or speculating about life still ahead.

We may consider missed opportunities, unfulfilled potential and poor choices and still see wonder. Often, that’s when we glimpse God’s grace. The times we messed up, and we felt God’s love in the forgiveness of others. The times we made dreadful decisions but learned valuable lessons. The times we aimed high, missed the mark but still accomplished more than we would have if we never tried. The times we analyzed and agonized over all the data at our disposal, and it wasn’t enough; we got it wrong, but God redeemed the situation anyway.

Grace quenches regret

Wouldn’t change a thing? No way. But God was real, anyway.

And here’s the paradox: We can look back on life, wish we could do some things differently and still feel no regret. Regret is a dry, parched soul. Grace quenches regret. That’s not to say regret doesn’t exist. But when regret is redeemed, it can instruct others and spark passion for what lies ahead in our own lives.

If only I’d known that at 17.

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Care to comment? Send an email to our interim opinion editor, Blake Atwood. Maximum length for publication is 250 words.