“Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage we did not take, towards the door we never opened, into the rose garden.”
? T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
A large portion of the common stale well of advice we dip into and serve up to each other is to forsake regret. Contemplating untaken paths and unsnatched opportunities can leave us forlorn and stuck; staring endlessly into the limitless alternate worlds our imagination brews up for us. But these “might-have-been” world don’t actually exist, and getting distracted by them can take the color out of this life we have now. The Land of Regret is surely no place to reside, but does that mean we should abandon regret altogether?
I don’t think so. I think regret is an essential part of life and growth. We can’t help but look back, especially when we have gained new knowledge, and consider how we could have done things differently. We are blind and clumsy creatures, and the only way to marginally improve ourselves is to recognize past errors. The key, though, is to use this new insight to make changes going forward, and not linger in regret.
It’s a monumental balancing act because it’s helpful to realize how stupid we used to be, but it’s completely useless to indulge in our impulses to punish ourselves. The self is ever hungry for a verdict: we want to be puffed up in confidence, or deflated by our ignobility. We are dizzied by our own ambiguity.
“Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.”
– Henry David Thoreau
The mantra of “no regrets,” suggests two interpretations. One, acceptance of the past, sometimes twinges of predestination. If you truly think you have no volition, no will at all over your life, then having regrets or not should not matter. But if you do believe you have some control over your life, regret can be an empowering thing. We can accept the past while using what we learned from it to make alterations in our present course. We have the ability to adjust our sails.
The other interpretation of “no regrets” is a call to action. The fear of regret is a great motivator, and the biggest regrets people have are about the things they did not do. It’s a reminder of how fragile our lives are, and how each moment is no different than the last except in the choices we make, the movements we make. “No regrets,” is reductive, but it can be a spark that unsettles our inertia. It’s that sleeping beauty kiss.
“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.”
– Arthur Miller
A study out of the University of Arkansas indicates that the times when we have the most intense regrets are when we perceive before us the greatest opportunities to change things, but that we have the most regrets when we mourn things we cannot change or repeat, like not taking a job, not finishing college, a lost relationship, etc. These big, unmovable things are the ones we must make peace with. There will be no closure. These perceived loses bandy about like loose threads in the mind, assaulting us with an agitative itch whenever we go down a stray corridor of memory.
It’s important, too, I think, to make sure that we are not mired in regret over the expectations others put on us, or because we are in a intoxicated romance with elaborate alternative selves we brew up in our minds. The dreams of who we could have been leap out of us at intervals, they are fun-house versions of ourselves with impossible lives that not been knocked against the waves of other people and the erosion of living. The rain never fell on these phantom selves. They were never hungry, or heartsick, or suck in traffic.