The Limited Value of Regret

This past weekend, I listened in and participated on a podcast hosted by a close friend of mine and featuring another friend. The subject related to religious abuse and how leaders of Church ministries sometimes use recognized manipulation techniques to coerce people into “accepting Jesus”.

Then someone mentioned Christian summer camps and I felt hot in the face. I was a guy who manipulated teens for 11 years as a teen camp director!

At the time, I was a pastor in Montana, but I also helped to work with a summer camp. I realize now that my great ideas about how to get the gospel truth across to teens used techniques that manipulated them. I would subject them to late nights, constant energy-draining adventure games, emotional music, and testimonials designed to appeal to their emotional center. We started the camps on a Monday and the climax of the week was Thursday night.

By that last evening, the music, the tiredness, the stories, and the appeal wore down the will of the campers. Often on those Thursday night climactic meetings, more than 50% of the kids would be crying and “committing their lives to Jesus”. I didn’t analyze what I was doing because it all felt justified if we could help them escape hell.

Which is ironic, since I have never believed in hell.

But I do remember one girl. She had responded to the Thursday night altar calls for three straight years. The fourth year, her last year of high school, she told me that she wasn’t coming to camp. When I asked if she had a job that summer, she hesitated.

“Pastor Mike, it isn’t that. I really don’t like what that camp does to me. I feel like my mind isn’t working by the end of the week, and I make commitments I normally wouldn’t make. I don’t want to let you do that to me again.”

That was my last year directing Teen camp. I knew after hearing her disclose her experiences that I was in the wrong. Hearing it again on the podcast drove home the point to me.

Lately, I have been facing up to many regrets. Six years ago, my 37 year career as a pastor ended. Since then, I have devoted myself to providing full-time trauma therapy for clients. And, even though I have had many doubts about faith and doctrine through the years, I still kept my denominational credentials active. Even after I left pastoring they licensed me as an area therapist if I gave discounted therapy to pastors and missionaries.

Last month, they ended that relationship with me. Since that time, I have been doing a review of my life. During these reviews, I occasionally regret the decision to ever be part of the Church or to be any type of religious leader. But, I find the part of me that wants to regret who I’ve been has a very narrow-minded viewpoint.

I believe Regret comes from a Part of us that seeks to protect and defend our lives. This part feels if we analyze our mistaken decisions, we will eventually emerge from that analysis wiser and more capable.

And that would probably work too—if we were nine years of age. But when adults live in regret, especially as they get closer to or past retirement age, the Regret part captivates their thinking and brings despair. The older a person is when the regrets start, the more this part blends with the core of who one is and hinders forward movement.

Therefore, regret is something we do with ourselves. As anthropologist, Krystal D’Costa says:

Regret is a personal assessment of perceived external judgment. It cannot be assigned, like blame. Regret is something we take upon ourselves. And the human tendency is to assume the worst: “People routinely overestimate the emotional impact of negative events”.

“Anthropology in Practice” 2011

We think the purpose of regret is to cause us to hone our skills at better decision-making. But it doesn’t work that way. As philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard remarked:

I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both!

“Either/Or: A Fragment of Life” by Soren Kierkegaard

What Kierkegaard is saying is that it is possible we would have found regret in any path taken. There is no guarantee that different decisions would have made our lives better.

There is no real point to regret as adults. We are no longer the person who made those decisions earlier in our lives. Since we are different now, we would naturally not make the same choices most of the time. We don’t need regret to school us on any of that.

In my case, much of my decision-making as a teen and 20-something was firmly rooted in Complex PTSD. Living out of that trauma, I decided to become a pastor. I will explore the reasons in a moment; but I am now choosing to look at the young man who decided to become a pastor and choosing to have compassion on him. He was working through substantial C-PTSD and was doing the best he could do.

Since I left church work several years ago, I have spent too many wasted hours in regret. It has only served to make me bitter and confused.

So I’m taking a different approach now. I choose not to regret the years I spent as a pastor. Instead, I am journaling the many ways I made good decisions in that process, or at least had good intentions behind my decisions.

As a survivor of childhood neglect, bad parental decisions, and early complex PTSD from foster homes, I developed a manic need for community. If someone showed love or even significant affection toward me, I became attached to them. Granted, it was a very insecure attachment, but it gave me an emotional landing spot. When a church youth group accepted me at age 14, I totally committed to them. God, theology, the Bible, and church structure and life were part of that package, and I embraced it all.

I wanted to be loved. I also had a talent for convincing others to join with the Jesus movement–called Evangelism– and I was encouraged to go to Bible College to do this full-time.

At Bible College, I found a more intense love from people. We were all heading into some kind of ministry, and they accepted me and lifted me up as a leader among them. Since I needed this acceptance and admiration so much, I pushed aside many of my doubts about the Bible and about Christianity as an institution. And I had many of those.

But love was a bigger need.

As Dr. William Glasser says in his book “Choice Theory”, other than safety/security, the need for love and belonging is paramount in our minds. We will set aside our other needs in order to secure love. So, as I look back on the 21 year old who decided to become a bible translator and then a pastor, I have compassion and love for him. He was securing his need for belonging as best as he could. He didn’t do anything wrong.

I am so proud of that young pastor who fought through his doubts about the inerrancy of Scripture and chose to translate every text he preached over those 37 years from the original Greek and Hebrew. I remember he sought diligently to keep the meaning to the original readers intact. And when he stopped believing the Old Testament had any relevance to modern Christians, he still used it to shed light on the cultural milieu of the Ancient Near East. He was a good teacher and steadfastly kept his integrity.

I know why he lived in poverty for most of his years as a pastor. I know why he opted out of Social Security even though it now means I will not receive it as I retire. I know why he lived in small, remote towns when he could have preached in large metropolitan pulpits. He wanted to be authentic and he wanted to impress God with his self-sacrifice. I know why he gave up to 20% of his money to church and missions work every month, even though it meant they had trouble buying food. He did it so he could sleep at night. He believed God required this of him before he could ask anyone else to sacrifice.

Bless his near-sighted soul. I have no regrets in a single penny he spent. He spent it as wisely as he knew how at the time.

I have compassion on him for working one 10-year stretch of 60+ hour work weeks. He was getting a counseling degree, raising four children, pastoring a growing church, and counseling up to 20 people a week. I have compassion on him for never completing his three year Masters degree and for not finishing the required hours for licensure. I have compassion on him for giving up vacation time to do therapy with others, and for spending his own money to get certifications for trauma therapy. In all of this, he felt this was the way he could make his maximum impact for God in this world.

I am proud that he worked with over 200 victims of sexual assault in churches. I am proud that he worked with over 100 of those churches to seek compensation, therapy, and apologies. Even though only two churches truly helped the victims to the degree that most advocates consider appropriate, he kept working. He believed that every victim needs an advocate. He did this even though it eventually got him kicked out of one district and eventually led to the denomination removing him for good.

The Me of today has given the Regret Part a new assignment. This Regret part is now going to help me appreciate and thank every previous iteration of who I used to be and to find a way to celebrate the many years he gave to his work.

One thought on “The Limited Value of Regret

  1. This was an incredibly valuable post for me. I’ve had trouble letting go of regrets for years, even being fully aware that they were useless and not doing anything helpful. Now I have a new, more compassionate framework.

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