Regret: to think of with a sense of loss.
The above definition is how an online dictionary defines “regret,” but when I think about my own definition and took a quick poll, that doesn’t even come close.
Today’s story is about the one thing to date that I can’t shake as a personal regret. That doesn’t mean don’t I wish I’d done some things differently in the moment, it simply means this event is the only thing that lands squarely in how I define, “regret.” That said, I honestly wasn’t sure how to define it in words but merely in emotion until I read this from a friend of mine yesterday and realized, that’s it, or as close as I’ve ever been able to come to it.
“A regret is something you did or said when you KNEW you shouldn’t do or say it at the time & you bullheadedly went ahead & did it anyway & have since seen the anguish it caused someone else or yourself. If you really did or said what you believed to be best & it just didn’t turn out well, I don’t think that is regret-worthy.”
This is not a happy story, but it is one that has haunted me for 3 decades. Perhaps ultimately that is my definition of regret, an unabated haunting.
Having regrets is a hobby for some people. I never cease to be amazed by the number of people I know or encounter who want to have lengthy conversations about things they’ve done they wished they hadn’t — or vice versa — and all of the attending angst. I’d say I saw the greatest lumping together of American women’s most popular woes on a recent Good Housekeeping cover, something along the lines of “Valerie Bertinelli shares her weight struggles, what she learned from her failed marriage, and her biggest regret.”
Suffice it to say, I am done with guilt and regret. I actually gave up guilt as a practice many years ago, and have never looked back. It became obviously self-important, neurotic, and useless. It simply had to go.
Regret has been a harder nut to crack. If I am honest, I do have a handful of things I wish I’d done differently in my life, but when push comes to shove I can’t say I would really want things to be other than what they are now. There is only one thing, one thing only that I truly regret. I’ve only ever told my husband this story, and now I’m going to unburden myself to you, dear reader. My hope is that by telling this story I might make things different for someone else. It is much too late to make things different for Alice.
Alice was a beautiful young girl at Camp Virgil Tate where I was a counselor for 4-H Kanawha County Camp one summer in the mid-1980s. She and her brother were both campers that week, and even back then I recognized in them a fragility under their good looks and strong sibling bond. Knowing what I know now about what so many kids experience growing up, I shudder to think what they might have left at home to come to county camp.
Alice’s demeanor was one of someone who had been beaten and psychologically abused. Because I was not much older than she was, and because at that point in my own life I had never encountered such a terrible reality, I didn’t understand her behavior. She was needy, and shy, and desperately wanted to be liked, but she did weird things. She clung to her brother when other kids wanted her to socialize with them, and though she was in her early teens (I think), she carried a baby doll everywhere she went. She slept with the doll, changed the doll’s clothes, even introduced the doll as her friend.
I was in charge of the cabin where Alice and a group of other girls were housed for a week that June. I knew the other girls were snickering about Alice’s insecurity and rolling their eyes over the baby doll, but I didn’t think there was trouble brewing.
I was wrong.
One morning I heard peals of laughter coming from the community bathroom. “Come in here, Elizabeth, you have to see this. Oh my God, this is hilarious!” A lot of pranks at camp were funny and good-natured, in fact I would say all of the ones I ever saw were that way, with the exception of this one.
I can still see it. My heart is pounding right now as I write this, and I feel sick to my stomach.
I walked into to bathroom to see Alice standing alone, crying, with a circle of girls around her laughing. She was trying to reach something, and the others would not help her. The others had hanged her baby doll naked from a shower curtain. Hanged as in noose around her neck, hanged. They tortured and killed the only friend Alice had at camp with the exception of her brother, and then they laughed in her face as she cried for help.
I remember being frozen. It was one of those terrible moments when your mind and your body refuse to connect. It felt like an eternity before I could move or speak. I told everyone but Alice to get out. I reached up to save the doll, and then put it in her arms. I think I told her I was sorry that happened, but I don’t know that I did. My memory is that I wanted the whole thing to go away as quickly as possible.
I believe the one safe place that child had that summer was violated, and that I could have done more to prevent it from happening. I could have done more to reprimand the girls who did this awful thing. I could have done more to comfort Alice, but I didn’t. I moved on. I wanted it to never have happened, and I acted like it never did.
Without going into the weeds, I’m a middle-aged person, and I’ve dropped the ball a few times in my life. I don’t care who you are, if you live long enough and are honest with yourself, you know you’ve done or not done things that might count as regrets. After all these years, the way I failed Alice is the only thing I define as a regret in my life. Because that bar is so high — or low — I have never been able to define anything else as a regret.
I knew she needed a friend, someone who would do more than just take the doll down. I knew those other girls needed to be held accountable for what they did. I analyze this now because when I read about all of the bullying episodes nationwide, there is this same theme. Others are there, others are aware, but they do not get involved at any meaningful level. Why? My experience suggests that one reason may be that when you actually witness this kind of psychological violence against another person, it is truly frightening. I think if you have never seen it in action, it is hard to understand its power. It isolates and harms the direct victim, and it paralyzes the witness (often) with a cloud of desperation to make it stop. Talking about it seems to keep it alive.
Of course that’s just how it seems. How it is is that not talking about it keeps it alive. It would be convenient to say, “I know that now,” but I knew that then. I didn’t do what I should have done, and what I knew was required.
I don’t know why this event out of hundreds of life events haunts me the way it does. If there is an afterlife, my vision is that I will encounter a healed and whole Alice, and that she will forgive me.
Image credit: Daniel Ware