My favorite painting in Chicago's Art Institute is Ivan Albright's "That Which I Should Have Done, I Did Not Do," (subtitled "The Door"). It is a somewhat-larger-than-life oil painting of a distorted, weathered door with an withered funeral wreath hanging from its center. From the left, an old lady's arm, in a wrist-length, lace-cuffed grey dress, reaches for the knob.
What there is about this particular painting that fascinates me so, I do not know, but fascinate me it does. And for equally unknown reasons, I identify with it. (Ivan Albright also painted the Picture of Dorian Gray featured in the 1945 film of Wilde's book.)
Missed opportunities and regrets are part of the fulcrum which gives balance to life, and without which we could not fully appreciate the bright joys of our existence. (Actually, far too few of us appreciate them anyway, but that is another matter entirely.)
For some reason, the highs of remembered joys do not carry us the same distance above the center line of emotion as the memory of our failures take us down. It's just one of those odd facts of life we may not like but have to accept if we are not to be consumed by them.
When I look back on the choices I have made through life, I have to force myself to weigh the "yeah, but if you had" factor. I have always regretted my having been dropped from the Naval Aviation Cadet program so very many years ago. Had I studied harder and paid more attention to the things I should have been paying attention to, I may not have gotten the boot. And yet I knew in my heart of hearts that had I remained in the program I would have been killed, as were so many of my fellow cadets during that particular period.
I have often regretted the fact that, in my really active days in the gay community, I was not more aggressive in approaching people to whom I was attracted, or that perhaps I moved from Los Angeles too soon. Yet this was at a time when AIDS was a raging brushfire sweeping through the gay community, killing everyone it touched. I lost far too many friends and acquaintances not to realize that, had I been more aggressive, or had I stayed in L.A., the next person I went home with may well have been the one round in the chamber of the game of Russian Roulette all gays played at the time.
So even regrets may have their balances.
On a personal, day-to-day level, I regret not being more thoughtful of others than I am. I regret not going out of my way to be kind to my friends and family nearly as often and to the degree that they go out of their way to be kind to me. I regret my too-frequently hair-trigger temper which causes me to do things which immediately cause me shame. I regret my tendency to react in kind: if I say "hello" to someone in my building and they ignore me (for their own reasons, whatever they may be), the next time I see them, I do not speak. Petty. Childish. But me.
I regret not being more generous; not volunteering more of my time or money to causes I know are worthy. I deeply regret passing panhandlers by on the assumption that they could get a job if they wanted to, or would just drink away anything I gave them. I am fully aware that of twenty panhandlers, at least one is sincerely in need. But how do I know which one? And that lack of knowledge engenders anger at the rest. (But, again, against which of the twenty should it be directed?)
Life is full of choices which come at us like raindrops in a thunderstorm. In attempting to catch them, we are bound to miss far more than we catch. There are so many things we should have done that we did not do it is easy to forget that there are a lot of things which we should have done and did do; opportunities taken, acts of kindness unremembered or unnoticed. What we should not do is to be too hard on ourselves. Leave that to me.
Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1), which is also available as an audiobook (http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B00DJAJYCS&qid=1372629062&sr=1-1).