Oxford and Cambridge and dealing with regrets

By , 10 July 2009 6:30 pm

Last week I had the privilege (and I mean it) of being one of six staff taking 40 students from Gorseinon College to Oxford and Cambridge for their open days. It was something of a four-day epic and I’m still slightly recovering from it: you can never relax with even well-behaved students and temperatures hit 30o+.

For me the trip aroused ghosts. I don’t often talk about my past and any future biographer (dream on!) may well be delighted by the factual crumbs I here present. Due to some obscurity in our local education rules I went to secondary school at the age of 10 and was thus a year younger than almost everybody else. The school I went to (Hutton Grammar School) was well over an hour’s journey away and I used to leave the house at seven in the morning and get back after five. I did very badly in the first few years and managed to find myself on Headmaster’s Report for poor performance. In hindsight, I was simply exposed to too much, too early. It is symptomatic of what Hutton was that no one spotted the problem. (Mind you it did have two good biology teachers and an excellent geographer to whom I owe considerable and lasting debts. The RE teacher, by contrast, was a sadistic liberal brute whose violent temper was such that everybody was very scared of him.)

Anyway, by Sixth Form I had begun to master my problems and was showing academic promise. When my A level results came out they were extremely good but by then it was all too late and I ended up at Sheffield. I now realise that this had (with some minor exceptions in the staff) a truly lousy Geology Department. Indeed when, a number of years later, I came to lecture on Geology in Beirut I found there were some very fundamental elements of the subject that were a profound novelty to me. Here ends the history lesson.

Anyway you can imagine that, last week, I often found myself often wondering ‘What if?’. What if that warm August day in 1971 when I went in for my results, some discerning teacher had said ‘Hey why not come back for a third year and try for Oxford or Cambridge?’? One of the problems of being a fantasy writer – perhaps it is a just punishment for aspiring to write in such a genre – is that we can create our own alternative life scenarios all too easily. We ask, all too often, ‘what if?’ and imagine the alternatives.

Now that, dear friends, is one of my own ‘what-might-have-been’ or ‘road-not-taken’ moments. It is a somewhat peculiar (and intellectually snobbish) one but I suspect most of us have something similar. The job we could’ve taken; the guy or girl we should have asked out for a date; the tough decision we flunked. And so on….

I suspect there are a lot of things that could be said about this and I would be grateful for sane and spiritual comments. Let me list some observations of my own.

  • We rarely, if ever, know that the road not taken would have been the better road. I might not have enjoyed Oxford or Cambridge or I might have become even more intellectually arrogant than I am… (apparently blog writing is a sign of intellectual arrogance) and so on.
  • We cannot live our lives looking backwards: you can never drive a car successfully if you constantly peer in the rear-view mirror. The issues I have are not what I might have done in 1971 but what I will do in July 2009.
  • Regret is a poisonous diet. It can sour all that we were, all that we are and all will be. A disappointment is unfortunate; but to have it wreck the rest of our lives is to turn a disappointment into a disaster.
  • This sort of view (like greed, which it resembles) is insatiable: life could always have been better. After all I did go to university and eventually got a PhD! Isn’t that enough?
  • A specifically Christian perspective is that we are told that this world is not all that there is. It is at best a brief preparation for eternity. Everything ultimately is to be judged in the light of eternity. That is what really counts.

3 Responses to “Oxford and Cambridge and dealing with regrets”

  1. Terry says:

    Thanks for the personal peek, Chris. You're right, we all have questions in this line. What I am learning is that God's love and His creativity are so unlimited that He can create a "best" out of anything.

    It goes much against our linear thinking to imagine that the circular (and/or messy) route can be as successful and important in God's plan as one that goes straight. In fact, it is what we learn at B and C and F and N that prepares us for the fullness of S.

    I remember (poorly) part of a poem on this line:

    "Have you no scar? He surely cannot have traveled far, who has no wound, or scar."

    We certainly create many of our own bunny trails, but the point is that He can use them to work in us the things He wants. I'm convinced that the church focuses far too much on doing the right things, and not enough on being in relationship with God.

    The question should perhaps not be "what if?" but "what now?"

    Take care,


  2. Catherine Brislee says:

    For what it's worth, I have found it helpful when dealing with past regrets to bring them firmly into the present. As in:

    1. Is there anything I can do about this right now? Sometimes there is. Life is full of second chances. Look at the number of people who change careers.

    2. If there is, what practical steps could I take?

    3. Is this the right thing for me to be doing just now? (Step three usually becomes clear quite early on.)

    Mostly I can't do anything about past things I regret, but going through this process helps me to let go a bit, and in at least two cases I was able to do something, though it's hard work, fixing the past!

    And yes, I take your point that it's not spiritually healthy to obsess about it too much. But sometimes, if you've taken the wrong road, getting back on it again means first going backwards.

    Thank you for yet another insightful blog.

    All the best,

  3. Smokey the Dog says:

    Of course Paul had this attitude in dealing with the past;

    Phl 3:13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of {it} yet; but one thing {I do:} forgetting what {lies} behind and reaching forward to what {lies} ahead,

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