In her recent book, The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd presents us with a deeply conflicted heroine, Sarah, a highly sensitive woman who grows up the daughter of a slave-owner and a child of privilege. But Sarah’s moral sensitivity soon trumps her sense of privilege and she makes a series of hard choices to distance herself from both slavery and privilege.
Perhaps the most difficult among those hard choices was the choice to refuse an offer of marriage from a man. Sarah badly wants marriage, motherhood, and children; but, when the man she has loved for years finally proposes, there were things inside her that she won’t compromise and she ends up saying no. What was her hesitancy?
When her suitor, Israel, finally proposes, Sarah asks him whether, inside their marriage, she could still pursue her dream to become a Quaker minister. Israel, a man of his time who could only grasp a woman’s role as that of wife and mother, is frank in his reply. For him, that could not be a possibility. Sarah immediately intuits the implications of that answer: “It was his way of telling me that I could not have him and myself both.” Her suitor then further aggravates the situation by suggesting that her desire to become a minister is simply a compensation, a second-best, for not being married. She turns down his offer.
But a renunciation does not cease being painful just because it’s has been made for a noble reason. Throughout her life, Sarah often feels an acute regret for her choice, for having her principles trump her heart. However she eventually makes peace with her regrets. Feeling the bitterness of her loss more acutely on the day her sister’s wedding, she shares with her sister how: “I longed for it [marriage] in that excruciating way one has of romanticizing the life that she didn’t choose. But sitting here now, I knew if I’d accepted Israel’s proposal, I would have regretted that too. I’d chosen the regret that I could live with the best, that’s all. I’d chosen the life I belonged to.”
There will always be regrets in our lives, deep regrets. Thomas Aquinas wrote: Every choice is a renunciation. For this reason, we find it so difficult to make hard choices, particularly as these pertain to any type of permanent commitment. We want the right things, but we do not want to forego other things. We want it all!
But we can’t have it all, none of us, no matter how full of talent, energy, and opportunity we are; and sometimes it takes us a long time to properly understand why. At one point in Kidd’s story, Sarah, in her thirties, single, unemployed, mainly alienated from her own family, frustrated by society limits and her limited choices as a woman, is living as a guest with a woman friend, Lucretia, a Quaker minister. One evening, sitting with Lucretia, lamenting the limits of her life, Sarah asks: “Why would God plant such deep yearnings in us. … if they only come to nothing?” It was more of a sigh than a question, but Lucretia replies: “God fills us with all sorts of yearnings that go against the grain of the world – but the fact that these yearnings come to nothing, well, I doubt that’s God’s doing. … I think we know that’s men’s doing.”
For Lucretia, if the world was only fair, we’d have no broken dreams. Partly she’s right; much of what’s wrong on this planet is our doing. But our frustrations ultimately tap into a deeper, less-culpable root, the inadequacy of life itself. Life, this side of eternity, is not whole. We, this side of eternity, are not whole. This side of eternity, nothing is whole. In the words of Karl Rahner: In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we ultimately learn that in this life all symphonies must remain unfinished.
This has many implications, not least the simple (though not-easily-digestible) fact that we can’t have it all or do it all. Our lives have very real limits and we need to stop crucifying what we have and what we have achieved by what we haven’t got and what we haven’t achieved. Despite the current myth to the contrary, no one gets it all! Most of us, I suspect, can relate to some of these regrets: I’ve raised my children well, but now I will never go anywhere professionally. I’m very successful at work, but I am less successful as a husband and father. I never married for the wrong reasons, but now I am single and alone. I’ve sacrificed ordinary life for an ideal, but now I fiercely miss what I’ve had to give up. Or, like Sue Monk Kidd’s, Sarah: I’ve never compromised my principles, but that has a brought a brutal loneliness into my life.
It’s never a matter of living with regrets or without them. Everyone has regrets. Hopefully, though, we’ve chosen the regret we can live with best.