When my husband, Ray, was diagnosed with cancer almost four years ago, we became a team, determined to face the challenge of living with cancer head on. From the onset, we talked openly about risks and probabilities as we aggressively researched and pursued treatments and clinical trials. We sought counsel from oncologists, nutritionists, integrative care specialists, loving friends and cancer survivors. And rather than avoid the elephant in the room, we decided to ride it.
“Live with no regrets” became the mantra we used to prioritize our decisions and frame the issues that confronted us daily. Should we take a family cruise to Alaska? Yes, no regrets. Should we remodel our 35 year old bathroom? Do it now. No regrets. Should Ray contact a friend in the hopes of resolving a painful interaction? Definitely. No regrets. Should we make time for each other every day to really talk about what was in our hearts and on our minds? Absolutely. No regrets.
Living with no regrets is one of the themes of the Jewish High Holidays. Our liturgy inspires us to stop and think about living a meaningful life, a life where we will have no regrets for what we do and say, and for how we relate to ourselves, others and God. We get a jumpstart on this process 30 days before Rosh Hashanah begins during the Jewish month of Elul. This is the time when we are challenged as Jews to take stock of our lives, to review the things we are proud of as well as acknowledge when we have let ourselves and others down. We are beckoned to take a hard look at our relationships and interactions, our commitments and goals, our successes and failures. This type of personal introspection is called heshbon ha nefesh, which in Hebrew literally means “an accounting of the soul.”
It’s not easy and often uncomfortable to admit the simple truth that we have made mistakes. We aren’t perfect and have done things that have betrayed the best person we know we can be. We have let our ego rule our decisions, hurt and disappointed others, said and done things we deeply regret. And we have done these things not in spite of being human but because we are human. Because being human means being flawed, imperfect, a work in progress. And being Jewish means recognizing that it’s up to us, each and every day, to choose what to do and how to do it.
Acknowledging regret is also a major theme of the High Holidays. Maimonides, the medieval philosopher, taught that there are three stages of regret: repentance, rejection and resolution. First, we feel remorse and apologize for our wrongdoings. Second, we don’t repeat the act when faced with it again, showing that we truly have repented and changed. And finally, we commit to living a better, more righteous life with the intent of becoming a better person in the days ahead.
Acknowledging and responding to feelings of regret plays a big part in helping us become our best selves. But setting an intention to live life with no regrets can inspire us to do the same. In this way, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remind us of the interplay of opposites that is often required for us to evolve and reach our highest potential.
When it became clear that the final months of Ray’s life were at hand, “no regrets” was the compass that directed us in our interaction with others. We attempted to do all we could to ensure that our children, family and friends would have no regrets after Ray was gone. He was able to tell people what he wanted them to know and hear what they needed to say. It was a gift of time, honesty and truth, for Ray and for all of those who knew him. Living with no regrets takes a great deal of intentional living. Dying with no regrets takes a life well-lived and well-loved.
It goes without saying that I deeply regret that Ray’s life ended too soon. But I am aware that a certain burden has been lifted from my heart as I walk through the complex grieving process. I believe this is a result of having made the effort to live and love with no regrets as we faced the last years of our life together.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at amyhirshberglederman.com.