Yesterday when I was young
So many happy songs were waiting to be sung,
So many wild pleasures lay in store for me
And so much pain my dazzled eyes refused to see
— Charles Aznavour (English translation by Herbert Kretzmer), “Yesterday When I Was Young”
Few things in life are as useless as regret, but few things feel as meaningful as my regrets. That’s a contradiction which I don’t quite understand.
When I was a boy, people warned me that my years would start flying by before I realized it, but I never quite believed that. Maybe nobody ever believes it until it’s too late. I’m not sure.
Some people say they have no regrets, but I suspect they’re either fooling themselves or else they have very selective memories. I’m burdened with a vivid memory. My mind can’t help drawing connections between my decisions and the emotional pain which I later experience.
I have a lot of regrets, but they serve a purpose. If I look at them in the right ways, they’re warning signs that allow me to adjust my decisions — while I still can.
When I was young, I was obsessed with finding success and wealth. I’ve talked about this before, so I won’t repeat what I’ve already said. But I have to acknowledge that growing up in a dysfunctional family pointed me in the direction of feeding my ego.
I had been so beaten down as a child that I was determined to be wildly successful. I had emotional needs that my childhood hadn’t met — and I believed that achievements and success would somehow give me what I needed.
I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to make that connection, but it’s plain to see now.
I regret that I valued success and money over love and connection. That would have sounded like nonsense to me at the time. I thought I could easily have both, but I didn’t realize how emotionally crippled I was — and how focused I was on feeding my hurting ego.
I regret that I didn’t put enough value on my time. I thought life would last forever.
When I was 18, life was so long that I was annoyed it was so slow to start. In my 20s, there was so much time ahead that I wanted to jump ahead. I was always impatient about where I was. I had trouble being a 21-year-old or a 30-year-old or a 39-year-old.
Wherever I was in life — in time or space — I wanted to be somewhere further along. I was never making progress as quickly as I wanted.
I had plenty of time to make my relationships what I wanted them to be. I had plenty of time to have children and raise a family. I had plenty of time to make a fortune. I had plenty of time to change the world.
I regret that it took me so long to realize that I needed to work on myself instead of trying to change the world.
I regret that I was so slow to realize that I would never be happy until I was committed to one love relationship — and that I had to take the risk of making the wrong choice.
I regret that I was so scared to commit to one woman — out of fear of making the wrong choice — that I lost my choices. It’s still hard to believe I did that to myself.
I realized this weekend that I am now the same age as my father was when he was discovered to be an embezzler. At that point, he was married and had a very expensive custom-built home on a couple hundred acres of beautiful and rugged woodland. Materially, he seemed to have everything.
And then his boss discovered that he had embezzled millions of dollars from him. I’ll never know the details of how that was discovered. It doesn’t matter. He wasn’t prosecuted and didn’t go to prison. The victim merely took every penny he owned away from him.
He was left with nothing. He friends deserted him. His wife divorced him. He disappeared for awhile — a few years, I suppose — and spent the time living in California and Nevada. I have little idea what he did then, because he didn’t talk to me during that period.
Whatever is wrong in my life today, it’s nothing compared to the situation he faced at the time. And he was exactly my age now.
In the years to come, he rebuilt his life. He eventually came back to Birmingham and had a new career. He was never wealthy again, but he supported himself. Then he met a woman who loved him.
They were together for years and had a very happy life together. They traveled together. They lived in a fine home. Materially, he had everything he had ever wanted. Again. He had a woman who loved and adored him — and because of her wealth, he lived a fine life with her.
He managed to throw away all of the benefits of this second chance at life. He never would learn to be completely honest — with her or with his children — so he laid the groundwork for his self-destruction. Again.
As I thought about that this weekend, it seemed significant to me. It seemed to contain an obvious lesson.
When my father reached his lowest point — when he lost everything — he was the same age I am right now. But he was able to find love and comfort fairly quickly. He was able to rebuild his life.
He had the chance to learn from his mistakes and build something that would be emotionally healthy and lasting. He didn’t do that, so he lost everything that mattered to him. By the time he died a couple of years ago, he was completely alone again.
The lesson for me is that I can either learn from my own errors and make better choices in the decades ahead — or I can follow the same path that my father did. I can return to the same old mistakes, which lead to the same old results.
I sometimes allow myself to feel sorry for myself. I look at the things I regret and it’s easy to start thinking that I’ve made enough mistakes that I can’t fix things. That I can’t find the love I need and make the right choice.
But if my father could lose everything when he was my current age and then build everything back — including love and material comfort — I know I can do the same.
I have to learn from my old mistakes. I have to make love and connection my priority. I have to set aside the things that never should have mattered anyway.
I still have plenty of time to experience love and life — as long as I don’t repeat my old mistakes, as my father did. That should be a powerful lesson to me.
Note: When I was a little boy, the song “Yesterday When I Was Young” was a huge popular hit for country singer Roy Clark. I loved the song and thought I could never identify with its message, even in the broadest of terms. I was mistaken, of course.