What is the central difference between regret and sadness? In some ways regret involves sadness or disappointment over a lost opportunity or a choice made. Sadness involves a reaction to a condition that makes you sad. The ability of choosing otherwise is the difference. In my life, as I have transitioned value structures and studied various world-views I have often thought about the idea of regret and choice. Do I regret the family I was born into? No, I didn’t have a choice. Do I regret the kind of kid I was growing up? Maybe a little. I could make the argument that I didn’t have a choice in the matter, but I’m open to debate 🙂 Do I regret not taking college seriously after high school? Certainly, this is a major regret I often wallow in. However, like the last one, I think I could make the argument that I did not have a choice in the matter, it just happened that way. Do I regret going on a mission for the Mormon church? No. Again, I do not believe I had a choice in the matter. Not in the ‘I was forced to’ kind of way, but in the ‘I would make the same choice again under the same context’ kind of way. Am I sad to think that I could have done something else with those two years? Yes, this thought makes me sad.
When I was 8 years old I woke up in the middle of the night afraid. I ran to my lightswitch and flipped it on. I sat there, drenched in adrenaline, thinking about how scared I was. I glanced at my newly acquired scriptures my grandparents had gifted me. I remember being told that I could read from the scriptures and find comfort from my Heavenly Father. I was in desperate need of comfort. I opened the scriptures to where a bookmark had been placed. As I read, I began to feel the comfort that was promised. Eventually my fear turned to curiosity. I had been challenged by my family, and those at church, that if I would pray about the Book of Mormon I would receive a spiritual witness that it was a true book of scripture translated by Joseph Smith by the power of God. I thought this was a perfect opportunity.
I began to pray. I remember the prayer was very short and to the point, “Is the Book of Mormon true?” I did not receive an answer. I sat there waiting for something magical to happen. I was in one of those wide awake states that you get into sometimes squarely in the middle of the night. I wasn’t going to just doze off without an answer. I asked again, with more sincerity and faith. I distinctly remember a voice in my head say, “of course it’s true Paul, you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t.” I was excited to receive this experience. I’m not sure how I interpreted it completely, because frankly it does not make a lot of sense, but I took it as: the Book of Mormon was true and I was born into my specific family for a special purpose. This experience and interpretation were critical for my spiritual development during my youth. It become an anchor experience that I would lean on as I pondered my commitment to and faith in the Church.
I tell this story to illustrate the type of kid I was. I grew up in a very orthodox Mormon household. Though our family struggled to have consistent scripture study and prayer, I we would have it more often than not for long stretches of time. We held family home evening (a weekly family meeting that involved teaching something religious) most weeks. We were very active, with my parents serving in demanding church callings. All of my friends were members of the church. We saw each other everyday at school, after school and at church. It was a way of life, it was Davis county Utah. In Mormonism, you are given a map of your life. This map is relatively simple, however incredibly powerful in its life defining implications. It was expected that I would go to seminary all four years that it was offered, followed by serving a two year mission at 19 years old, and then getting married in a Mormon temple and having kids soon after. This was the game plan assigned to me at birth. Along with this plan, I continued to have what I would consider spiritual experiences that would confirm and strengthen my beliefs.
These markers on the typical Mormon life map held special meaning and carried much weight in my spiritual development. They were markers that symbolized status, prestige, loyalty, submission, sacrifice, humility, etc. My life plan was set (even before I was born, some in the faith would teach). My older brother Dean is 7 years older than me. He served a Mormon mission to New Zealand. My brother John is 4 years older. He did not serve a mission. You may think that each of my brother’s decisions influenced me in my desires and ultimately my decision to serve a mission in different ways. In retrospect I do not think their choices made a significant impact on my personal decision. I was always going on a mission, it was practically written in the stars. It was an expectation, both by the church and my parents. I had a lifetime (albeit short from older eyes) of spiritual experiences that testified to me that the Church was true, and that I need to follow the plan by going on a mission. I even remember thinking, “worst case scenario, I get to leave my town for 2 years and possibly live in another country and learn another language. I will also be providing service to people the whole time.” My friends were going, I was all in, no regrets right?
“Every man is guilty of all the good he didn’t do.”Voltaire
I think most people feel a tinge of regret when they pass the person stranded on the side of the road, “someone else will stop” you think. Inevitably there will be things that make us sad. But how much control do we have over the past? None. Thinking about my past can be draining. Why regret something we cannot control? I can fall into regret despair rather easily. I have to rip myself out from time to time. The time I spent on my mission to Dallas Texas was filled with mundane discussions with uninterested people, and was also filled with inspiring interactions and experiences. I met wonderful people and developed mature characteristics that I badly needed as a teenager. However much I try to convince myself that I am not sad about going on my mission at 19 years old, I really am. I am sad for the reasons I went. I am sad for the reasons I used to go, stay, preach, and convert. Intentions matter, the basis for action matter. I did good, but was it for the right reasons?
However much I cherish my experiences as an 18-20 year old, I wish at that time my potential life philosophy was one of many options and not just one. I wish I was given the opportunity to be exposed to those other options and not just one. I wish I knew that Mormonism is a religion that nearly everyone in the world does not think about for their entire life, I thought it was my entire life. I wish I recognized that my life might be the only one I get, and that I needed to squeeze out every ounce I could. I wish I made decisions rooted in the idea that I was making the decisions myself and not for my parents, my siblings, or my religion.
In the end, I do not think I could have chosen otherwise, and this thought helps me to not dwell in sadness, but energizes me to be my best self today. The only thing that I can control is how I react to the present moment, in these very moments when I reflect on life. In my present moment, I am responsible for raising 3 children. I hope to give them every opportunity to learn about and experiment with various life philosophies. In this effort I hope to minimize the sadness that can accompany the long cold stare into the past and regret. Beyond avoiding sadness, I hope to inspire my kids to find peace, love, and joy in their efforts to live their best life as they experiment with it.