By Norris Burkes
Posted Apr 9, 2017

“Do you have regrets?” I asked, leaning into the hospital bed of a 57-year-old woman.

I knew what her answer should be. I’d read her medical chart. This alcoholic had shared one too many needles and likely had plenty of regrets. I wanted to know whether she knew what they were.

The question is one I put to nearly every patient I see in my role as a hospice chaplain, well aware that most of us carry a few regrets.

As I near retirement this summer, it’s a question I’ve put to myself.

“You’re too young to be asking yourself that question,” said my much-older wife. OK, seven months older.

But am I? Regrets often start early in life and can stack up like a fortress of bricks.

For instance, I still regret bullying one of my seventh-grade classmates by calling her a “zit-face.” She tore from the classroom in tears. A few minutes later, I was called to the principal’s office where he helped me regret my comment much more in depth.

But even more deeply, I regret not standing up to the bullies in my life. One bully was the Air Force religious education director I supervised who threatened to kick my keister. I regret cowering in my office instead of calling the military police.

In recent years, I regret not accepting my commander’s generous offer to waive the rule that mandates retirement for officers who’ve served 28 years. Her waiver would have extended my military service through October of this year.

Unfortunately, I can’t go back and relive those moments. I can only fantasize about being the hero that I could have been.

However, there is one kind of regret that I’ve found to be repairable. Fixing this regret will allow you to turn back the clock to that moment you broke something. No fantasy, real stuff.

For years, I regretted leaving a work relationship with so many unsettled questions. For years I spun with fury and disappointment over the hurt I perceived given me by a chaplain colleague.

One day, I decided I’d had enough remorse in my life. The chaplain left active duty, so I tracked him down in his Florida church office. I fully intended to blast him with every piece of blame I’d been stockpiling.

Instead, my fury somehow became derailed and I heard myself, nearly accidently, say — “I regret the way we left things 10 years ago.”

Instantly, the lights turned on as we simultaneously blurted out a slew of apologies. We buried our mutual regrets and disagreements, and since that day, I have never once returned his name to my list of regrets.

There are a lot of things we can’t undo. I can’t re-enlist in the military. I can no longer file charges against the threatening office bully. I can’t undo the damage done through my anxious consumption of Oreos while writing this column.

However, it’s rarely too late for apologies, for righting relationships, for seeking reconciliation. Twelve-step groups employ this strategy in Step 9. “Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

I’m not saying that your apology will be accepted or that you’ll obtain the satisfaction I found with my past adversary. Your mileage may vary, but as my friends in AA say, “It pays to keep your side of the street clean.”

Regrets can pile up when not addressed early. I should know. Apparently, I added one more regret in writing this column. My wife says she’ll make me regret the day I called her an “older woman” in print.

— Read Norris’ past columns at Write him at or P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, Calif., 95759. Twitter @chaplain or call 843- 608-9715.