I regret very few things in life, if by “regret” we mean the desire to undo the past, to have done things differently. I don’t regret loving with a full heart when my brain was nothing but red flags, and that same heart later fell broken at my feet for having taken the chance. I don’t regret the missteps I have made, even the one that got me to where I am in this moment, writing with my feet up in my office, or rather, my foot. The other, my residual limb, bandaged and buzzing with phantom pain, sits mismatched beside it. Surely if I were to regret anything it is that. But I don’t. Neither do I regret the creative risks I have taken, some of them costly, nor the hundreds of thousands of images I’ve made in my life that are now on the cutting room floor; they were the price of getting to the good stuff.
Yoda said, “There is no try, there is only do or do not.” Respectfully, Yoda is a muppet and he’s full of crap. There is plenty of try in this life and not all of it goes to plan the first time. Or even ever. But it is the trying from which we learn. The risk. The failure.
We are all becoming the people we are, not only because of the victories (may they be many) but the failures.
I don’t necessarily celebrate them—they represent loss and some of them represent great pain—but they do make us who we are. They carve the contours of our souls that make us the individuals we are. To regret these things is to wish away the tools of our own becoming. Becoming more averse to our own comfort, more suspicious of the notion of safety, more resilient, and more sensitive to the pain and loss of others as they too become who they are. And become more ourselves.
We are made by the things we do, not the things we do not do.
My father once told me, hot on the heels of a diabetes diagnosis when I was 21, “Your problem is you let circumstances beat you.” As hurtful and insensitive as that was, he wasn’t wrong. His words alerted me to the possibility that I could push back against my circumstances, could make something from them. I didn’t see it this way then, but I’ve come to see that these circumstances, even the ones I bring upon myself, are raw materials in the creation of the person I am becoming. I’ve come to see that as the most important part of a creative life: creating the artist. Not regretting what has happened to me or even the things I have done, but using them. They are both the raw materials and the tools of our shaping. I like the man that I’ve become and I wish my father could know him now. I think he’d be proud. To regret all these rough patches and the truly painful missteps would be to wish away that man in favour of someone with smoother edges and no story to tell, a different and less interesting person making less interesting photographs.
What I have regretted are the things I have not done. Conversations with the dying reveal this to be all too common: it’s not so much that we wish at the end of our lives to undo this or that, but to have another crack at what was left undone, untried. To say what was left unsaid, to have another chance at love that was never explored. To be the people that we knew ourselves to be, and could have been more fully, were we not so held back by fear. I think when we’re dying we probably see so much more clearly (and realized so heart-breakingly late) how truly trivial some of the things we feared really were.
I am, I hope, a long way from my last days, but I do regret not peering around more corners in unfamiliar places, and I regret the times I stopped just shy of the limits of my comfort zone, when to go further would have taken me to experiences I couldn’t have possibly imagined at the time. I regret having not gone farther. Deeper. I regret not engaging in conversation with people leading lives differently than I do, people who have scared me. I’m getting better at that. Creatively, I regret the photographs I didn’t take. And it’s not even the iconic stuff, but the photographs of people no longer alive and moments that are now fading in my memory. Memories I’d give anything to revisit.
We regret what we have not done more than what we have done because there’s no way back from it when time runs out. It’s a loss. A loss of possibility and of the one chance to have lived on our terms. To do something—to (forgive me Yoda) just f*cking try—means there’s the possibility of something more. Even to try and be met with colossal failure, at least there’s a possibility of a do-over. A chance to learn, to become the person who can eventually do that thing.
To try is full of possibility. To not try is to court regret and surrender the hope that other possibilities exist, that we can create something great, if not from our first efforts, then from the wreckage of those first efforts.
I am mistakenly considered to write about photography. It’s an easy misunderstanding. I talk about being sensitive to the quality of moments, of considering the importance of changing perspective and point of view, of making choices to amplify the emotion of things, and of being present and awake to the million intersections of light, space, and time while the shutter is open and receptive to the light. It would be a missed opportunity to look at these ideas only through the lens of making 2-dimensional photographs when the bigger possibility is making our lives more intentional and lived as fully and in as many dimensions as possible.
I want to take a moment to thank and update everyone who has been so supportive and generous since I announced the amputation of my foot. It was a decision made knowing there was a better chance I would one day regret not having done it, not having taken the chance and swung for the bleachers. I don’t know if it was courage or if it was a question of being more afraid of what would happen—and the increasingly limited life I would have to live—if I didn’t do it. Right now I’m doing well, though the phantom pain is not to be trifled with. It’s just really unpleasant, often incredibly painful. Like relentless shocks of electricity, little stabby zappy f*ckers all over the foot I no longer have. They keep me up at night.
Here’s the metaphor I’m currently working with: it’s like my brain is calling my foot. But my foot isn’t there so it keeps calling and calling and, getting no answer, it leaves an increasingly hostile series of angry voice messages. It just goes on and on and it’s hard to concentrate for any length of time, though I have found if I workout, or do my yoga, or get into flow while I’m writing as I am now, they subside some. Perhaps my brain is so busy looking for the right words that it stops looking for my foot.
On Tuesday the stitches come out and on Friday my prosthetics team will take a mold of my residual limb, and before the end of the month I should be partially weight-bearing on my first temporary prosthetic leg and foot. If that’s not miraculous I don’t know what is. Thank you for the endless encouragement, and to those of you who purchased my monographs, I owe you a special debt of gratitude.
Within the year, after we’ve worked out the bugs, I will be walking around on a prosthesis that you have helped me create. You will be part of every footstep, and every new adventure, and I have no words for that kindness.
For the Love of the Photograph,
P.S. If you haven’t purchased my series of new monographs and desktop wallpapers, you can do so here and pay whatever you would like for them.
P.P.S. If you’re wondering if these articles are going to be all amputation all the time from now on, I promise they won’t. What I’ve written for you has always been connected to the here and now and right now this is my very present reality. But it won’t be for long and before you know it I’ll be back to telling you what f/stop to use and which tripod to buy.😉 You know me better than that. I wanted to write something this week that was more photographically helpful, but, well, I was stumped for ideas. Ha! Get it? Stumped…? It’s ok to laugh about this, my friend.