Forrest Gump and Regret

benchEverything is different now.

To live a life full of regret is to live a life of self-imposed limits – and this, in and of itself, is a choice. Regret is a choice, not a consequence. I think regret isn’t an emotion, but rather, a reaction stemming from ignorance and uncertainty. But regret certainly is not a desire to have made different decisions.

As I sat in prison, wishing I’d made different choices, my outlook was short-sighted and I hadn’t yet seen the entirety of the picture. Sitting in prison can do that to you. But in my experience, sitting in prison didn’t entail sitting in a cell, staring at other inmates through bars as prison guards walked by, tapping the cell door with his billyclub. Sitting in prison, for me, entailed sitting on a park bench in a wooden gazebo atop a tall grassy hill in Winfield, overlooking a beautiful landscape of verdant Kansas fields of wheat and corn and trees and prairie grass. So I couldn’t share Andy Dufresne’s feelings of hopelessness and despair and agony of staring at tall stone walls; but rather, I gazed upon the picturesque landscape of my minimum security prison, which differed significantly. But all the same, optimism was often still difficult to come by.

Reclining on that park bench during the spring and summer evenings I spent in prison, much of my thoughts were formulated on incomplete information. Since being removed from my family caused me to (logically) track back to the choice I made that led me to prison, my gut-reaction, consequently, was to wish I’d never made those choices in the first place – this is the result of letting emotion control logic. But at the time, I was operating on incomplete information. Essentially, I had no idea what life would be like when I stepped back into the real world.

I’ve been home now for almost ten months – December 5th will be a year. And there is one thing I’ve learned: I took the very scenic route toward becoming exactly the person I am supposed to be. I’ve heard the quote a million times that “We are who we are because of who we were,” but I never sufficiently understood until now. I’ve learned more about life and priorities and values through my recent life experiences than I ever would have learned if I’d never made the choice to make out with that former student.

During the years leading up to my crime – beginning with college and deteriorating from there – I was a full-blown addict, hooked on the high of promiscuity, the thrill of the dating game, and the powerful feeling of victory when my conquests were successful. I became dependent on the feeling that accompanied sex and empty companionship because it provided a temporary fix to a very permanent problem, but as far as I was concerned, temporary was good enough. Temporary was fine because it afforded me new opportunities to conquer the high and ride the lightning, seemingly every weekend (and many nights in between).

When I got married, my honest thought was that the mere words “I do” would turn off that switch because I would be able to have sex whenever I wanted, now with someone I genuinely loved. But what I didn’t understand about myself (and wouldn’t understand until prison) was that I had completely severed the connection between sex and love; in my mind, the two were mutually exclusive and independently viable. I’d simply ceased to relate the emotional connection of love with the physical connection of sex; thus, I’d eliminated the emotional connection of sex. Sex, to me, was a pain killer, not an emotional expression. I loved my wife and never stopped loving her. The problem was, I’d reached a point in my life when sex and love were no longer connected. I could come home from having sex with another teacher in her classroom, and look my wife in the eye and say, “I love you,” and mean it, because at the height of my cognitive distortions, love and sex were no longer connected.

These affairs would have been much simpler, however, if I’d managed to make that severance clean and complete. But, of course, there was an instance when I became emotionally wrapped-up in one of the women with whom I was having a relationship. Falling for her made my life’s house of cards even more unstable. However, we were both mature grown-ups and we parted friends. But for the most part, most of my affairs consisted of nameless and faceless sex that only served the purpose of deadening the pain of an injury that I didn’t acknowledge I had. And that all seemed to suffice (not really) until I made the choice that would eventually lead to prison.

So sitting on that prison park bench, the fleeting thought of “I wish I’d never made out with her” flowed (understandably) through my waking consciousness as I watched the wind sweep across the grassy Kansas fields at the base of the hill below me. But there was one question I’d never asked myself until I rejoined the real world in December of 2014: “What if I’d never made out with her?”

Seriously, what if?

Well, there are positives: I’d still have my career, I wouldn’t be a registered felon, I wouldn’t have spent two years away from my family – these are all logical conclusions. Or are they?

Making out with my former student was merely a symptom, not the diagnosis. The true underlying problem was that there was an incident in my past that I’d never – ever – adequately addressed, and as a result, the choices I made were centered around self-medicating a problem stemming from an incident about which I’d never even audibly spoken.

The reality of the situation is this: If I’d never made out with my former student, I never would have come to the realization that I was out of control, and I would have continued to whorishly sleep-around with my co-workers and ex-girlfriends and women from bars (etc…). And if I’d never gone to prison, I never would have sat with a therapist and attacked head-on the deepest darkest issue of my entire existence.

Therefore, as a result of all of this, I have become the best possible version of myself. I am more honest and open than I’ve ever been. I can’t imagine even considering the choices that I made in the past, be it illegal or immoral, I feel like my whole worldview has gotten a much-needed upgrade and many of the glitches have been fixed. Granted, this certainly isn’t the way I saw my life ending-up, but sometimes, that’s the best thing that could possibly happen. And even though it was tough to spend two years in prison, completely removed from society, I would rather lose two years of my freedom than to lose my wife forever. I’ve managed to reestablish that connection again between love and sex, and as a result, my marriage is not only faithful now, but is more passionate and genuine than the day we were married. I was a married man for ten years before I figured out how to be a husband. And now that I have, our marriage is stronger than it has ever been and grows stronger every day. My wife and I have seen many of our friends marry and divorce, and I often wonder how our marriage – which has been through quite a bit (to use a massive understatement) – could still be rock-solid. And I am not afraid to credit my wife with that. I’m not still married because of anything I’ve done right; I’m still married because my wife chose not to leave – I’m still married because my wife believes in “For Better or For Worse.”

Do I have regrets? None. Should I have made better choices in the past? Of course. But, if I’d made better choices in the past, who would I have become in the future?

I’ll never be the man I should be, but every day I strive to be the best man I can be, and I thank God I’m not the man I used to be. It’s been a long road, and every step has been worth it.

“Maybe it didn’t turn out like I planned. Maybe that’s why I’m such – such a lucky man.” –Darius Rucker, This