Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Forgone possibilities

There's an article in the New York Times about regrets: regretting the choices you made that, if made differently, would have led you to becoming a different person. It's about lost possible selves.

Apparently as we age, some of us are able to reframe our regrets by sharing the blame with others involved. You might describe this as defensively shifting the burden to those others, but psychologists think it's an important life skill: recognizing that you didn't act in a vacuum.

One psychologist asked people to write about the fantasy of their future life they had before a major life-changing event, such as divorce. I remember when I was divorced the intense disappointment I felt over losing that fantasy life: the dream of being with the father of my children on our 25th anniversary, surrounded by family; welcoming grandchildren into the world together and sharing their lives; retiring together with someone who had known me for my entire adult life. It was a huge loss to grieve, even though it was just a fantasy.

The psychologist found that those who are able to talk or write about this lost future without sinking into despair or losing hope tend to have developed another quality, called complexity.

Complexity reflects an ability to incorporate various points of view into a recollection, to vividly describe the circumstances, context and other dimensions. It is the sort of trait that would probably get you killed instantly in a firefight; but in the mental war of attrition through middle age and after, its value only increases.

Apparently this is a skill that develops over time; it is part of the process of maturing. You have to practice it to improve it.

“To elaborate on loss, to look for some insight in it, is not just what a psychologically mature person does,” Dr. King said. “It’s how a person matures. That’s what the studies show.”

I'm mildly shocked at the article's focus on lost good possibilities, because when I think of my lost selves, I usually think of the bad ones. The angry, resentful, vengeful person who stayed with her birth family and verbally abused them for the rest of her life; or the drug-using welfare slob; or the work-a-holic driven to prove that her empty life is really success to the family who will never acknowledge her. Or the depressed woman who didn't live this long, because it was too painful and suicide looked like the only way to escape the pain. I don't regret any of the choices and decisions I made to turn away from being those persons, and I had impulses to move in each of those directions over the early years.

The choices that I regret have had serendipitous benefits; the price of changing those decisions would be losing those benefits. I can't objectively tell, in the now, whether failing to marry my first husband (and thereby missing the pain, anger, and frustration of an unhappy marriage plus the stress of divorce) would be worth losing my children, and I'm glad I don't have the opportunity to go back in time and change that decision. All of my choices are like that, mixed good and bad, and so would the lost selves be: some maybe better than who I am today, many worse, all different.

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