She asked me this in the bathroom, as I was drying my hair. No matter what I am doing, my two youngest kids seem to hover around me, fluttering like moths to a flame. The lack of privacy – not to mention personal space – doesn’t really bother me anymore. And often, as on this particular morning, it provides the opportunity to talk about whatever is bubbling to the surface of their young minds.
I weighed my possible responses. My daughter just turned eight. What could a second-grader possibly know about regret? In the end, I answered that, in general, my regrets were not about things that I had done but rather about things that I had NOT done.
“Do YOU have any regrets?” I asked.
After a pause, she admitted, “Sometimes I’m not so nice to some kids at school.”
“But recognizing that you aren’t always nice means that you can do something about it,” I pointed out. “Right?”
She shrugged and wandered off with her American Girl doll. Maybe the message would sink in.
But for me, a question remained, left hanging in the humid, post-shower bathroom air.
What do you do when you have regrets but you know that there is not a thing in the world that you can do about them?
The truth is that my daughter’s question brought me back to a conversation that I had in a very different context. Several years ago, I spent some time in the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana. I was with a team taking statements from Liberian refugees for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia. It was almost exactly six years ago – May 2007 – and it was grueling, emotional work. I interviewed more than 40 people that week and every single one of them had suffered multiple layers of trauma and unimaginably tragic loss. One after another, in family groups and as individuals, they sat before me in a small, cramped office. Sometimes there was power for the ceiling fan to move the hot, heavy air; sometimes there was not. Each one of them was a survivor of horror, a testifier to the nightmare of war. (I’ve written about some of them before in Talking To My Kids About Death.)
Even though they had left their homeland of Liberia, what they had experienced was still very much with them. Even if they could push it down deep during the day, the terrors they witnessed would return to haunt their dreams. Many people I interviewed told me of how the nightmares startled them awake at night, sweating and crying. Many more told me of hearing others screaming in the night, neighbors who were trapped in their own PTSD- induced nightmares. There is no privacy in a refugee camp.
There was one woman who has always stayed with me. She was middle-aged, calm and collected. She told me her story in detail, almost scientifically exact. Clearly, she had relived the events many times over. She told me of her life before the war, the fighting and chaos that separated her from her husband and some of her children, the desperate weeks when she, her youngest children, and their neighbors hid in the bush, the treacherous journey to the border. The years – more than a decade- of limbo in this refugee camp.
At the end of any interview, I always ask, “Is there anything else you would like to tell me?”
This woman told me of that the only true regret that she had, the only regret of her life, was about something that she had not been able to do. What she told me went something like this:
We were hiding in the bush and the rebels passed close by. They attacked a village there. They didn’t see us, but we saw them. They killed a lot of people. We were too afraid to move, so afraid they would hear us. There was a baby crying; they must have killed the mother. The baby kept crying and crying and crying. I wanted to go get that baby, but what could I do? I knew the baby’s crying would give us all away to the rebels. The baby kept crying and crying and crying, all night long. And then it stopped. I knew that the baby had died. In the morning, we saw that the rebels had moved on and we left our hiding place. Now I hear that poor baby crying every night in my dreams.
Most people will never be put in a position like this, this untenable Hobson’s Choice. Most of us will never be faced with having to make the choice between our own life -and that of our children and neighbors – and that of an innocent baby. Many of us would like to assume that we would find a way to not make the choice; that we would find a way to save that baby.
I knew I could not save that baby. I wanted to, so much, but I knew I could not. Even so, I have always felt bad about it. I have never told anyone – not one single person – about this before. Just telling you now – it makes me feel better.
I don’t have any answers here, just as I had nothing to say to this woman other than “I am so sorry.” I can’t change the world. I can’t promise my daughter that she won’t experience pain or sorrow or guilt or regret. I don’t even have an image to go along with this post.
But if there is one thing that I took away from that hot, cramped interview room in that refugee camp in Ghana, it is that there is a value in bearing witness. I had worked with refugees and torture survivors for years, but it took this one woman to bring that point home to me. There is a value in simply listening, and in confirming for someone who suffered injustice that, “It is not right and I’m sorry that this happened to you.”
It may seem insignificant, but it is not. And it is a reminder that when you come in contact with someone who is suffering, in either a big or a small way, there is always something that you can do. You can listen.
So do it.