LDS therapist: Getting past 'if only,' learning to live without regrets

Published: Thursday, Oct. 8 2015 9:23 p.m. MDT

Kim A. Nelson is a professional LDS therapist. (Provided by Kim A. Nelson) Kim A. Nelson is a professional LDS therapist. (Provided by Kim A. Nelson)

A hopeful vision of the future is what moves us forward.

Have you ever experienced the pain of regret? Have you ever revisited a past choice and asked yourself what could have been if only you had chosen differently? It’s hard to avoid such feelings sometimes, and yet if we focus on the past, we can easily begin to lose confidence. We can get to a point where we don’t trust ourselves to make good decisions.

A life without regret is not the same thing as a life without sorrow. How many times have you heard a person say about a difficult time in his or her life, “In hindsight, it was worth it”?

Perhaps you yourself have thought something like, “I’m not anxious to go through anything that hard again, but, looking back, it will always be a time I value because of what I learned.”

Life will not be perfect, but it will be better if we choose well than if we choose poorly. We want to make it as good as it can be. We want the very best our lives can offer. So we need to learn to make wise choices and to concentrate on moving forward rather than looking back with regret.

The most powerful example I have ever seen of looking forward to an abundant life, rather than backward with a mind full of “if only” questions, came from a woman I met at a gathering where I was speaking. I don’t even know her name, and I have never had the opportunity to thank her for being one of the most important teachers in my life.

The conference where I had spoken had come to an end. I was standing near the front of the auditorium when a lovely young woman in a wheelchair approached me. She introduced herself as a convert of about a year and expressed her thanks for the event.

She asked me if I was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I assured her that I was. She asked if I held the Melchizedek Priesthood. I replied that I did. She then asked me if I was worthy to give a blessing. This caused me to pause and make a brief moral accounting in my mind, but after a moment, I said I was. She explained that she was staying with a non-LDS family, was a day and a half from home, and needed a blessing using consecrated oil. She assured me that she knew that her home teacher or bishop would have been the right person to ask for a blessing, but under the circumstances, I would have to do.

I asked her to wait briefly while I went to look for another Melchizedek Priesthood holder to help with the ordinance. It took only a minute to locate a friend who I knew was active and would be willing to help. We returned and asked the woman if we could find a little more appropriate place for the ordinance. We found a small room backstage that was quiet and out of the way. We had a brief prayer and asked her to tell us why she had sought the blessing.

I made brief notes later that night because her story had made such an impact on me. Although not verbatim, this is very close to what she said, based on my notes and memory. Please notice the time line of her situation.

She began by telling us that she had joined the church about 14 months earlier. Two months after her baptism into the LDS Church, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Three months after that, her non-Mormon husband left without warning; she and her children were still not sure where he was. Her three boys — ages 8, 7 and 5 — all had significant challenges. The older boys had ADHD, and her 5-year-old son was autistic. The pain from her MS and the lack of stability it caused forced her to use the wheelchair. To complicate her situation even further, she was very allergic to all pain medications except morphine.

Her state-appointed child protective services caseworker told her that if she used morphine for the pain, the state would be required to put her boys in foster care.

After she finished this overwhelming story, which caused me to feel utter despair for what she was experiencing, she looked up at us and said, “Brethren, I need you to bless me that I can learn to love my new life.” She then folded her arms, bowed her head, and waited for her blessing. We administered the blessing, and the sister thanked us and went peacefully on her way.

That woman’s simple request changed my life. I have heard her words in my mind a thousand times since then as I have said my prayers or felt like too much was being asked of me. She showed me by her example what it looked like to trust God and trust in the Atonement. She really believed what the missionaries had taught her when she accepted the gospel. She believed what she read in the scriptures. She received the gift of faith that was promised as part of the baptismal covenant, and the gift of the Holy Ghost that accompanied it. She had chosen to live her life without dwelling on regret or “if only.”

Did this sister have an easy life? Obviously not. She was in the midst of some very difficult challenges. But in the heart of this storm, she decided to exercise her agency and get the most out of the experience.

We have all seen people completely withdraw from the world and become bitter and consumed by negative feelings in similarly trying situations. But rather than being a victim, this woman chose to take an active role in building the best life possible. She refused to let her husband’s betrayal destroy her trust in others or in God. She sought ways to deal with her pain rather than give in to it. She decided to learn all that she could, trust in the Lord and try to learn to love her life.

There is a quote by Robert Lewis Stevenson that describes perfectly the peace I saw as this woman exercised her faith and agency. I have it hanging in my office, and I think of her every day when I read it: “Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm.”

Quiet minds come as a result of our taking an active and affirmative role in our own lives. Partnering with the Spirit as we go allows us to be less confused and scared. We then are able to move forward at our own pace toward experiencing life more abundantly.

This life is not about being perfect — an impossibility here in mortality for anyone but our Savior — but rather about becoming more and more like our Father. By understanding and applying the principles explored throughout this book, we can have more peace and feel closer to heaven as we continue to learn and love.

Kim Nelson is a professional LDS therapist. He is the author of "Getting Past 'If Only': Learning to Live Without Regrets." He will be presenting at the LIFT Conference for Women on Oct. 29 in Utah County on this subject. Visit www.seagullbook.com/page-LIFT.html for more information about the event.

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