Esse-a-Go-Go: The Regret Story

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.

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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.”

How uplifting.

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

Adult Bullying: Is It Ever Justified?

I just read a great sermon by Lucia Lloyd about suffering, in which she defines 3 types of suffering.  There is suffering caused by sin or evil in the world, suffering due to natural events, and what she calls “Jimmy Buffet suffering” — sometimes it’s just your own damn fault.

Teasing apart different causes of suffering has me thinking about looking at a whole range of issues in a new way.  One of them is this question of bullying — what is it, who does it, what does it look like, and are some kinds more accepted than others?  At the serious risk of being ostracized myself, I’m diving into this one in search of answers.

There is currently a lot of focus on bullying of young people, but what about adults?  It does seem that the gloves are still completely off when it comes to going after a grown person that the masses seem to think “has it coming.”  I posted a few days ago about secrets, and I’ll let you in on one of mine — well, I suppose it’s not a true secret, as some people know it very well, but here goes:  I love revenge.  I am an absolute junkie for the adrenaline rush of someone getting their come uppance.  Something about feeling like someone deserves to suffer because they are making others suffer appeals to my dark side.  And you know what else?  I hate myself for it.  It is a terrible character flaw, in opposition to what I truly believe in my heart is the highest and best purpose of human action, and just plain redneck tacky.

Coach Bill Stewart of the beloved WVU Mountaineers’ football team is getting beaten around the head and neck pretty severely for some embarrassing losses.  It’s hard to see a team you love start to lose, especially games they are “supposed” to be winning.  I realize I am not dialed into the emotional collapse of so many fans, as I didn’t go to school in Morgantown and while I support the team I don’t favor them especially over other West Virginia schools.  I’m more likely to pull for the West Virginia team over another state.  But I do remember when Stewart took over the team after Rich Rodriguez fled to Michigan, and how grateful and even teary eyed so many abandoned Mounties fans were when Stewart led the team to victory over rival Pitt.

Sports fans can be a fickle and vicious bunch.  I think the question we are grappling with socially — and well beyond college football — is this: Is this ever a fair and acceptable way to frame and treat another person?  Can we excuse our own aggressive and even ugly behavior by claiming it was justified by someone else’s shortcomings or failures, real or perceived?  Are there some settings, such as sports, where it will always be accepted to dehumanize a man and throw him into the coliseum?

I hope not.  For now, it appears to be the case.

Image credit: Intentional Foul

Growing Up Blind – John Warren (part 1)

National Coming Out Day founders Rob Eichberg, Ph.D. and Jean O’Leary encouraged all people, of all sexual orientations, to “take your next step” in living openly and powerfully on October 11th.

Today, it seems especially fitting that Esse Diem begins a five-part presentation of John Warren’s submission to the Essays on a West Virginia Childhood project. 

John is a long-time friend of mine.  We first met as very young children when our families were in the same Presbyterian Church in Charleston, and we later found each other again in junior high and high school.  He was always incredibly intelligent, compassionate and insanely funny.  One of those people you just know in your heart you will always adore and respect, he took my breath away when he told me he wanted to write about growing up gay in West Virginia.

John told me that this process of putting his experiences down in writing was not always easy but definitely valuable.  When I read his story, it immediately was clear to me that the essay has the potential to help others as well, both those who are homosexual as well as those who need to understand more about diversity and compassion.  I hope you will enjoy this week of John’s writing, and that you share it with others.

Growing Up Blind (part 1)

Although I was not born in West Virginia, I grew up there, and for the first eighteen years of my life, it was the only place I thought of as home.  I had a pretty normal childhood, but things got a bit confusing for me when I hit puberty.  I eventually realized that I was gay, but it took me a long time to admit it to myself and even longer to admit it to others.  In fact, I spent a large portion of my teen years wondering if homosexuality was a real thing or just some kind of urban legend. 

I have been an obsessive journal-keeper for most of my life.  I have filled more than forty notebooks with dutiful records of the day-to-day minutia of my life.  Reading old journals is fun, but it can also be painful and embarrassing.  Every once in awhile there’s a meaningful reflection or significant insight, but there’s a lot of useless crap, too.  (Did you know that in Super 102’s “Battle of the Bands” on March 25, 1985, “Celebrate Youth” by Rick Springfield defeated Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues”?)  I wish I had recorded more deep inner thoughts and not so much about which TV shows I watched that day.

My incessant journaling is probably a byproduct of being a serious introvert and also being a bit of a geek.  I did well in school, but I was always a tad behind my classmates in my understanding of the workings of personal relationships.  In elementary school I had a simplistic view of morality that was probably most strongly influenced by Spider-Man comic books.  I was always kind of clueless about gender roles and I was never discouraged from having stuffed animals or listening to ABBA.

During sixth grade I hit puberty and it rapidly became clear that my older brother and the other boys in my class had an interest in girls that I didn’t share.  I instinctively knew that this was a bad thing and something to keep hidden.  There was an effeminate guy in my class who got picked on a lot, and I know that some people thought he was “gay.”  Personally, I didn’t believe it.  He was one of the best artists in our class and a nice guy, and I wasn’t convinced that there were really such things as gay people anyway.  “Gay” and “queer” were just words that bullies used when they were picking on someone who was different.  There were certainly no adults in my world who were openly gay, and I had never heard a teacher say anything about the existence of gay people.  

I never considered asking my parents about it; even if they had been open to discussing that kind of thing (which they didn’t seem to be), I don’t know if I could have even put the question into words at that age.

Tomorrow, part 2 of Growing Up Blind – Junior High.

Image credit: John Warren

Memoirs of a Bullied Kid

It’s not often that this blog defers an entire post to another site, but today is one of those days.  This issue is too important.  I implore you to take the time to read this man’s story.  It is painful, but it is compassionate and real.  He has some advice for all of us that could change the world if we are willing to listen and do new things in new ways.

Please click here to read Memoirs of a Bullied Kid.  Thank you…….