President Obama’s Greatest Regret—Guest Post by Michelle van Loon
I’ve had a few regrets in my life—some small and a few large. Michelle van Loon’s new book, If Only: Letting Go of Regret, gives us all perspective and help in living through those regrets. She focuses one aspect of regret in this post--I'm so glad to have her here on Kindling.
During his recent visit to Asia, a group of Malaysian school kids asked President Obama about his greatest regret.
“I regret not having spent more time with my mother,” Obama candidly told the students. “Because she died early – she got cancer right around when she was my age, actually, she was just a year older than I am now – she died. It happened very fast, in about six months.”
Ann Dunham died from ovarian cancer in 1995 just 22 days shy of her 53rd birthday.
“There was a stretch of time from when I was, let’s say, 20 until I was 30, where I was so busy with my own life that I didn’t always reach out and communicate with her and ask her how she was doing and tell her about things,” Obama said. “I was nice and I’d call and write once in a while. But this goes to what I was saying earlier about what you remember in the end I think is the people you love. I realized that I didn’t – every single day, or at least more often – just spend time with her and find out what she was thinking and what she was doing, because she had been such an important part of my life.”
When I was researching the topic of regret, I ran across a 2011 study about the kinds of regrets that haunt us. The top regret listed by the study’s respondents had to do with a failed romantic relationship, followed by education, career, finances, parenting, and health choices. President Obama’s greatest regret – nurturing his relationship with his mom while she was alive – didn’t make it onto the list.
Regret often gets folded into the grieving process as we mourn a loved one, particularly as the months turn into years after their passing and we recognize how much we’ve truly lost. My dad died in 1997, on his 64th birthday; my mom died 11 years later, at age 68. In our culture, they were still relatively young people. I had every reason to assume they’d be around for a couple of decades more, until their respective doctors each said words like “cancer”, then “terminal”.
Like Mr. Obama, I was very busy focused on the tasks of building my own life during the years prior to their deaths. They were visitors, spectators and cheerleaders during my early adulthood. I did my best to honor them, Fifth Commandment-style, while they were alive, but it wasn’t until after the acute grief at their deaths faded to a dull ache that I began to feel the kind of regret best captured in singer Joni Mitchell’s 1970 hit “Big Yellow Taxi”. Though the song focused on the thoughtlessness with which modern progress occurred, the lyrics included this haunting rhetorical question: “Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got/Till it's gone?” I think Mr. Obama felt the same sort of regret.
As months moved into years after the deaths of my parents, I realized again and again how much of life I could no longer share with them: the things my grandchildren/their great-grandkids did and said, connection at weddings, graduations or holidays, conversations about our family’s history. And I regrettedmy assumption – the assumption most of us carry until we find ourselves in mourning – that my parents would be around.
That there’d be time.Regret schools us in the reality that there won’t always be time. Though regret is normally a soul-suffocator, this specific breed of regret is meant to shape the way in which we live. The prayer attributed to Moses in Psalm 90:12 is the response of a heart choosing to learn how to live the abundant life Jesus promised: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
The words of this prayer take on a different weight now that my parents are gone – and may indeed be the very best way of all to honor both my parents and my heavenly Father as I walk out the remaining days of my own life on earth.
Michelle currently consults in the area of communications for several faith-based nonprofits. She’s authored two books about the parables of Jesus and has contributed to three devotionals and two devotional Bibles. She is a regular contributorto Christianity Today’s popular Her.meneutics blog, and also maintains her own blog at Patheos.com. Michelle counts it a high privilege to tell the stories of spiritual ragamuffins, rebels and refugees to show how God uses our mess and his grace to transform us.You can read more from Michelle at her blog, on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @michellevanloon.