The Things You Regret – The Inactive Form of Love

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I teach a course in multicultural psychology. It’s one of my favorite courses to teach. I marvel at the diversity of the human person but also that within that diversity there’s so much we share in common. I know it’s an overused analogy, but what a beautiful bouquet of flowers the human race is. I can only imagine God created it that way so he may “Delight in us” as the scriptures say. In the midst of this diversity I’ve come to marvel at one way we’re all the same and that’s how we view regrets. Studies in multicultural psychology demonstrate regardless of culture people regret the things they’ve never done more than what they have done, even if what they’ve done resulted in mistakes.

In more specific terms, psychologists study something called “Counterfactual thinking.” Counterfactual thinking is a hypothetical belief about your past that could have occurred in order to avoid or change a negative outcome. Basically, you use counterfactual thinking when you look back in your life and say to yourself, “If I had only done (or not done) ______ I might be better off.” Maybe it was a decision to enter a particular vocation, leave a particular city, or something as simple as having bought a particular type of car. In the end, counterfactual thinking often leads to feelings of regret. There are two categories of counterfactual thinking. The first group consists of those associated with actions. So, you might say to yourself, “If I wouldn’t have eaten that last piece of cake I might not be so sick today”, or “If I wouldn’t have majored in psychology I might be more likely to get that job as a business consultant.” The regrets you have are over something you’ve done. The second category of counterfactual thinking has to do with inaction items, those things you wish you would have done. Examples of this category might include thoughts like, “If I would have studied harder at school I might have made something of myself,” or “If I had been a better husband my marriage may not have ended in divorce.” Both of these categories are the types of thoughts that lead us to have regrets and people all over the world have them.

In multicultural psychology we look at these types of thoughts and ask ourselves, “Which category of counterfactual thinking is most prevalent in different cultures and which category do each of these different cultures experience the most? What we’ve found is all people, regardless of culture regret the things they’ve not done more than what they have done. Additionally, in every culture people regret what they haven’t done to the same degree. That means everyone, regardless of where they live, regrets not doing something to the same degree all over the world. We’re most troubled by what we didn’t do. I have a theological speculation why that might be the case.

If you look at how God created the human person, we were created for action, and in particular two actions that strike at our core. We were created to love others and to be loved. Whenever we do not create or experience love we suffer. In fact, love is so important to the human condition those who don’t experience or share love suffer disease much more prominently, recover from illness more slowly, and relapse into disease more frequently. When we cannot do what we were created for we crumble. Like anything created for action, inaction becomes the source of our slow demise. God, who is constant action (Pouring himself out for creation and continually renewing all he created through love) created us to be icons of his active love. Everything the human person does is intended to be an extension of the love of God for the created order. Our jobs, our marriages, our relationships, our leisure, all we do is intended to somehow love God above all other things, one another as brothers and sisters of the same father, and care for the created order. We were created for action, not to be inactive bystanders who do nothing. Because of that, when fear paralyzes us from making ourselves vulnerable to give and receive love we have a strong sense of regret. Mistakes are not our enemy, they’re part of learning to love more perfectly. Inaction and fear are our enemy. We can’t be comfortable in our inactive state, we must be stretched to be a more active agent for the kingdom of God. Innately people are aware of this and that’s why we regret what we didn’t do more than what we have done.

In my role as a minister I’ve had the opportunity to sit with people as they prepared to die. While the evidence is anecdotal at best, in the context of my pastoral care for them the feelings they share with me generally fall under two categories. They want to know if they were loved, but even more concerning to them is whether or not they loved others enough. They regret the love they didn’t show more than their attempts to actualize love. I pray all of you ponder whether or not you’ve become too comfortable in your attempts to actualize love; keeping yourself from “acting” in a more loving way. Never tire from finding new ways to stretch yourself and become more vulnerable for love’s sake. If you do this, your regrets will be minimized. In the end, you will find when you lay your head on your pillow for the last time the comforting voice of God saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

Finding Meaning and Purpose In Life

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In the last BLOG, I indicated that the key to maintaining good habits has to do with connecting those habits and goals to your meaning and purpose in life. While that’s a great way to stay focused and committed to things that are difficult, a number of my readers and workshop attendees often say, “How do I know what my purpose in life is?” Let’s explore that a little and see if I can give you some insight into how to discover what that might be. Please be patient with yourself as you go through this process, it can take time and requires some real reflection on your part. However, If you take the time to understand what this is, you’ll be greatly rewarded!

One of the first things to consider when trying to discover your life’s meaning and purpose is to think about the things and activities you’re passionate about. A good place to start is often with your hobbies. Too often we think of our hobbies as simple diversions that allow us to escape from the world. More often than not, your hobby is a reflection of your deepest passion. For example, you may really enjoy spending time buying old furniture and using it to create a modified version of its original look. An old mirror might be transformed into a more modern and exotic piece of furniture that captures everyone’s attention. You like being creative and taking something that someone gave away and turn it into something new, inspirational, and valuable. While you may not make this type of work your job, there is something about it that touches the very center of who you are. What you need to do is spend time thinking about what exactly it is that draws you in and motivates you to spend time refabricating old furniture and turning it into a valuable product. It may not be what you’re “actually” doing, it may be the process or some aspect and characteristic of the work that draws you in totally unrelated to the actual furniture.

I grew up performing magic shows and I became quite a proficient ventriloquist. I would put on shows in my garage, invite the whole neighborhood, and was a frequent guest at numerous birthday parties. I went from performing magic tricks to playing the guitar and learning every Beatles’ song I could get my hands on. I found I loved being in front of people and performing even though I was a very shy kid. From magic to music I later found myself employed as an IT consultant, then a therapist, minister, and now a college professor. How are any of these things related to one another? It took me a long time to see the thread that tied them together, but I believe it is something obvious once you think about it. First, I like the mystery involved in knowing something that others are straining to understand. The magic tricks and ventriloquism were a mystery to my friends and family and when I could make that mystery interesting to them I loved it. Also, all these activities involve engaging people and helping them find something more from life. Sure, ventriloquism isn’t some profound art that assists people to find greater meaning and purpose but it did give them some joy and entertainment so their life was a little better. Being an IT consultant allowed me to take something that was mysterious to many business owners and show them how it could empower them to be more profitable and help their customers. Being a therapist allowed me to help people with the mysteries of everyday life through the power of psychology and being a minister allowed me to walk with people in the ultimate mystery of life found in the divine experience. Lastly, as a college professor, I help young people engage in the mysteries of their educational pursuits so they are empowered to do great things in the world after they leave our university. My hobbies and interest led me to see a common meaning and purpose in my life (By the way, I still love magic but my wife won’t let me pick up the ventriloquist dummy again).

Let’s get back to the individual who loves working with old furniture. It may not be that their meaning and purpose in life is to create new and interesting pieces of furniture (Of course it may be that, but it doesn’t have to be). They may be the type of person who finds meaning and purpose by taking what many people believe to be a “throwaway” item, experience, idea, or God forbid, person and work with them to be something interesting, better, and polished. Maybe this person can find meaning and purpose working with school kids that no one else wants to work with. They can take these souls the school system has thrown away and turned them into empowered, accomplished, educated people. It doesn’t matter what you do, what matters is why you do it. That why is the most powerful motivating force in your life.

Let me close this post with this final homework assignment that I want you to work on. Look at the things you’re passionate about and ask yourself what the root of that activity or idea is that motivates you? What is the unconscious experience in your hobby that speaks to the meaning and purpose in your life? If you can do that, in the next post I will show you how to discern that passion in a holistic healthy way.

Why You Can’t Maintain Good Habits!

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In the last post, I indicated that we really need to take a hard look at ourselves in a holistic way and start setting goals that make us healthier. I proposed we set goals that help us take better care of our bodies, our minds, emotions, relationships, and spiritual lives. This is the best approach to healthy living because each of these five spheres of human life encompasses much of who we are and are completely integrated with each other. If you take care of your mind, your body becomes more healthy and if you take care of your emotions you can think more clearly, etc., you get the idea. That means you should set at least five goals, or at least be mindful of five important practices related to your physical health, your emotional life, your mental life, your relationships, and your spiritual life. That might mean you set the proverbial weight loss goal but you should also attempt to spend quality time with each of your family members throughout the week. Perhaps you can enjoy dinner out with your spouse, playing cards with your children, or taking time to call a friend you haven’t talked with for some time. When you focus on all five of these areas you’re looking at your life holistically and each goal and habit you start for each area will help you in the others.

One of the toughest things about setting goals and developing habits is we seldom follow through with them. We feel inspired to lose that 10 pounds but after about five days we start ignoring the diet, the exercise, and the new gym equipment we got for Christmas. Other goals and habits are just as easily ignored. I know a number of my friends who got tablets for Christmas because they were going to start reading more ebooks this year… Mostly they are binging Netflix shows on them and haven’t even purchased their first ebook. Why is it so hard to get started on building new healthy habits? Being healthy is important to me so why can’t I do it!

The main reason you can’t maintain (or start) good habits and complete your goals is that they have no connection to what you believe your meaning and purpose in life is. Even worse, you may not know what your purpose in life might be! You may be one of those kind souls drifting from one thing to another, functioning well enough, enjoying parts of your life, but not living life with purpose. When you either have no purpose or can’t connect your goals and habits to that purpose, you fail. What we do has to matter and I mean “really” matter. If it doesn’t connect to what you believe is your purpose, it just won’t matter. In fact, you may simply be adopting a goal or habit because it just seems like something people ought to do. Remember, something you ought to do is not something you will pursue with any real energy and is almost as bad as something you should do or need to do from a motivational perspective. You want your habits and goals to be something you do because it allows you to fulfill your life’s purpose. For example, I hate to eat right and I hate to exercise. I would love it if I could maintain a decent looking midsection while eating cake and reading my favorite book. Sugar and reading are two of my greatest addictions! The problem is when I do that I look fat and can’t keep up with my family who likes to travel, hike, and do so many physically exerting activities. Yet, even though I hate these things, I eat fairly well, limiting my sugar and I exercise at least three to five times a week. How is it I can consistently participate in something I hate? First, it’s important to me to be a father who can participate in all my family’s activities. I want to make memories with my family and to do that I have to be able to travel with them and participate in all the activities they enjoy. Secondly, I’m a college professor and speaker. I’m frequently in front of groups of people which means my physical appearance is part of my message. Nothing will distract more from my teaching than a physical appearance that doesn’t reflect healthy living and temperance that I speak about as an essential part of living well. I can’t let my addiction to sugar and sedentary activity keep me from fulfilling my purpose which is to help empower people to be the best they can be. Because of that, I exercise and watch my food intake so that I can fulfill my life purpose.

What I want all of you to do as you start thinking about your next set of goals and habits is to ask yourself, “Does this really help me accomplish my life mission? Will this help me fulfill my purpose?” If it doesn’t, don’t pretend you’re going to continue pursuing that activity, it will fall short. If you really think it’s important, you need to connect it to that life mission if it’s going to be something you do consistently. If you don’t know what your life mission or purpose is, stay tuned, next week we will look at how to develop that. See you then!