Regret is a topic too big to cover in one little blog post. It’s too big to cover in two little blog posts. But we do what we can, right? When most people think about regret, I’d bet it’s not to re-hash the stupid things they’ve said, as I discussed in Truth and Regret. It’s not to beat themselves up over the questionable things they’ve done (boy-short haircut of 1999, I’m looking at you). The hardest regret to make amends with is regret for the things we did not try, say, or do—the risks we did not take. Oh, boy. Did I say that I was going to tackle this in one blog post?
This is a topic I think about often, not because I have mountains of non-risking regret, but because a great many things sound like a good idea to me, and I often do them, whether or not they make sense to other people. I’m not risk-averse, more like risk-prone. And sometimes I wonder if I’ve gone too far: maybe one day, the risks will roll themselves into a giant ball of regret, and I’ll think, “Why didn’t you just stay home? Why didn’t you major in accounting and stop moving around and marry a nice American boy? What if it all goes horribly wrong, what if it fails?” And then the next question snaps me back to reality: “What if things fall apart, just like they can for anyone, anywhere, whether or not they ever risk a single thing?” And so back I go to my life in Canada, where I moved to fall further in love with a South African boy I hardly knew, living a life I never foresaw, but jumped into head-first, risk-guns blazing.
Maybe I should back up a bit. About six years ago, when I was twenty-four, I decided to go on a Contiki tour of the Mediterranean, by myself. It was my very first time traveling abroad, something I had dreamed of doing for years. And, if the rush of frolicking in the streets of Italy, France and Spain wasn’t enough, I also met a boy. His name was Grant and he had a funny accent that I couldn’t place. Australian? British?
We met on a warm September evening in Rome. It was pretty darn romantic. During a day trip to the Cinque Terre, we climbed to a cliff-top outcrop overlooking a stone castle. He was wearing a grey t-shirt, and threw his shoes off immediately. I took a picture of him, and he of me. He looks contemplative and handsome in his photo, the castle looming behind him, beautiful and otherworldly. I look young—wearing a short skirt and stupid grin. After staring out at the impossible expanse of blue ocean for a while, we climbed back down, nervous, happy, uncertain, and walked past alcoves filled with dried flowers, religious figures—mementos of devotion. We stopped at a roadside cafe to drink sangria and eat salty green olives, trading stories back and forth like little offerings. The day passed that way—no frantic explorations or map to guide us, no monuments to see. We talked over that bowl of olives until it was time to meet our tour bus. A different sort of sightseeing: it was our first date.
Two weeks later, the tour was over. The rush of new love coursing through us, we concocted a crazy plan. Grant had been hired to work in a small town in northern British Columbia in three months time. The biggest barrier would be lifted: we would be on the same continent (he wasn’t able to work in the U.S. without re-doing his medical residency), so why not give it a shot, see if it could work? The plan was to put my things in storage, ship my car from Chicago to Seattle, and then drive the eleven hours north to Quesnel. We’d give ourselves a two month trial period to see if what we had was more than wine-induced infatuation. My stomach hurts just thinking about that time: the stress, the anticipation, the foolishness. I remember calling my dad to tell him the news, and before I revealed the plan, he said, “But you’d never do something crazy like move to Canada, right?” I swallowed the lump in my throat and said: “Yes. I would.”

My second day in Canada. What have I gotten myself into?

I get that not everyone understands the decision to run off to another country for a boy. The feminists scream, “You gave up your life for a guy?!” The realists ask, “What about your job?” Moving somewhere to further your career is sensible; moving for love, not so much. I get a lot of furrowed brows whenever I tell this story: “How long had you known each other? Who did the asking? Why didn’t you just try long-distance?” And I know that most people only get past those questions because it all worked out in the end: we’re married now, I’m happy, my husband is a succesful doctor. There are a lot of things to soften the blow of this risk, to make the risk, in retrospect, seem less risky.
But it almost didn’t work out. About nine months in, during a trip to Europe and South Africa, on our way to meet his family for the first time, Grant told me that he didn’t think we were going to make it. In beautiful Vienna, standing in a magically lit square, men in lederhosen dancing around us. I wanted to throw up; after a tense discussion, I ran into a McDonald’s and almost did. We talked a lot that night. I told him I wanted to go home. We both wondered if the whole thing had been an unfortunate mistake. I remember Vienna as a gorgeous, horrifying place where my brave risk almost tanked, where I prepared to pack my bags and fly back to Chicago, defeated. This wasn’t the only rough patch; there were times when I was just as uncertain as he was in Vienna. In case you haven’t inferred as much, moving to another country and living with a brand new partner is not the perfect recipe for a stress-free relationship. But that night was the closest we came to ending it, in Europe, no less—-the very birthplace of our burgeoning romance.
Why am I telling you this very personal story? Because leaving it at, “I took a risk and it all worked out in the end, how lucky and wonderful for me.” would be easy and misleading. I want to make it clear that risking isn’t about guaranteed happy endings. We can’t take big risks with the assurance that we’re going to receive a big payoff: we don’t always get the boy or the dream career or the huge windfall. Sometimes all we get is a broken heart and an empty bank account. But we have to risk anyway. Otherwise, we only get what’s handed to us. We will never live an unexpected, challenging, beautifully full life without climbing out on a limb (or an Italian cliff) now and then and reaching for a higher branch.

How could I resist that hair?

I’m happily married to the boy in that cliff-top photo. But life is complicated and imperfect. I gave up a lot to get what I’ve got: living in the U.S., close, every day contact with good friends and family, the definition of who I was when I lived in familiar circumstances, seeing and doing familiar things. But as many times as I’ve questioned my choices, I know that, given the chance, I would do it all over again. My risk took me places I couldn’t have anticipated: to a life in Vancouver, to new friends and family from around the world, to finding my voice and finally releasing the words I’d been hoarding my entire life into the ether. Most importantly, I learned that I am strong and resilient and adaptable. When things are difficult and uncertain, I am my own best ally. I trust my choices now, because I know that I can live with the consequences, whatever they may be. I got the boy, sure. But more importantly, I got the current version of me.

A reality I never imagined for myself: Kissing my South African husband in Cape Town. Photo by Eric Uys

So, choose love. Choose uncertainty. Choose failure. Hope for the occasional triumph. Go after the version of you that’s out there somewhere, waiting for your bravery and acknowledgment. You’ll never know how spectacular your life can be if you don’t show up, eyes wide open, risk-guns blazing.