Regret is the mind killer

I read this great post, “The Reading Police of the Young,” and found myself remembering the weirdly inconsistent way my reading habits were monitored when I was a kid.

For example, I remember longing to read my mom’s copy of Dune, the paperback sitting squeezed between a bunch of her Agathe Christies and Robert Heinleins. Mom had told me I wasn’t old enough after she finished it. When she realized I kept looking at the book–not reading it, not even opening it, just looking at the cover–she moved it to the small shelf in the bedroom, the one that had Dad’s books that I wasn’t allowed to read (mostly Matt Helm and James Bond books, whose sexual situations were considered pornographic back in the day, but are rather quaint and downright prudish when compared to modern prime time fare).

And so I wondered what forbidden topics were hidden within. When I finally did read it, some time in my teens, I was a bit disappointed. Not at the book, I found the story quite interesting. I was disappointed because there didn’t seem to be anything in it that should have been forbidden.

I mean, yes, it is clear that the Baron has a thing for pretty young men, but there is nothing about the way it is described that anyone could call erotic. And Herbert’s unconcealed homophobia, manifested primarily with the old cliche that the more gay a character is, the more evil they are, should have resonated quite nicely with Mom’s evangelical sensibilities.

Those evangelical sensibilities waxed and waned throughout my childhood. At one point she was encouraging me to read Asimov (both his fiction and nonfiction), Tolkein, LeGuin, and Bradbury. At another point we had the first book-burning incident–when under the influence of a new pastor, she decided that the astronomy books I’d checked out from the library were astrology books, and since astrology is the same as satanism, the books needed to be destroyed.

(I still occasionally have bad dreams that include a reenactment of my tearful explanation to the librarians about why I couldn’t bring the books back. When they called Mom to ask for the books, she harangued them for letting children check out satanic books. The library set up a special spot for my books from then on. I could check out books and read them in the library, but couldn’t take them home.)

The second book-burning had been Dad. Dad’s reasons weren’t overtly religious, my dad is the kind of atheist who is angry at god for not existing (think about that for a bit). No, he decided that I was getting bullied at school so much because I spent too much time “living in a fantasy world.” His book burning was worse because he forced me to pile up the books, pour the accellerant on, light the match, and watch it burn. With random slaps and punches because I was crying while doing it.

Then a year or so later, he bought me an encyclopedia set and told me that I was going to go to college and “make something of yourself” or else.

For the longest time I attributed those mixed messages to the ebb and flow of Dad’s alcoholism and abusive behavior. The worse Dad got, the more intense Mom’s fundamentalism got. When Dad appeared to be changing for the better, Mom loosened up and re-embraced her inner sci fi and comics fangirl.

Those were definitely major factors in the dysfunction in our family, but I wonder how much of the inconsistency was also due to their youth. My parents were both 16 years old when they married, then I was born 6 days before my dad’s 18th birthday. Current brain research indicates that the prefontal cortext (the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, foreseeing consequences, emotional modulation, et cetera) doesn’t fully develop until around the age of 25.

That couldn’t have helped.

While both of them were readers who believed in the value of education, I know both of them felt they hadn’t done as much with their own lives as they could have or ought to have. So while hope for their kids drove some of their decisions, regret played a very big role, as well. Regret drove them to push me to do better in school, which is a good goal. But regret also drove them to micromanage my behavior on all levels, which isn’t just impractical, but if they had been successful would have had the opposite of the desired effect.

We can’t learn how to do anything correctly without learning from our mistakes as well as our successes. That’s just as true for thinking and imagining as it is for basketball or playing the piano. And while there is value in studying what other people have done, it isn’t sufficient. You have to try, fail, and improve on your own. Avoiding someone else’s mistake is no guarantee you won’t make new mistakes. Trying to duplicate someone else’s success may help you find a good way to do something, but it should also lead you to new directions they couldn’t explore.

And when you are buried in your own frustrations and regrets, you’re least likely to possess the objectivitely required to identity just which if your own past actions were mistakes, and which weren’t.

Regret, in that case, becomes both the mind-killer and dream-destroyer. You can’t wallow in the regret. Face it, yes. Let it serve its purpose of motivating you to do better. But then, let go. And become the better you.

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