“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.

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“Sleeping Beauty,” 2010, K J Payne

“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.


  • Avi

    While I think there’s value in analysis, I think there’s rarely value in regret. Regret is a hazy description of an emotional experience. We look back at something we’ve done and feel sad that we did not do something different. That feeling can potentially be an impetus for further growth and examination, but the ideal to me is reaching a state where the feeling is no longer necessary. If we put enough thought into our examinations, we will no longer need reductionist emotional responses that are every bit as blind as we are to guide us. We’ll examine a decision whether we feel sadness, happiness, regret, etc. Most who have covered the idea of examining one’s decisions have argued it’s as important to examine one’s successes as failures. I say that not for the sake of argument by majority but simply because it has become almost as widespread as “no regrets.” So I still tend towards the idea that regret is not worthwhile, and it’s certainly not synonymous with depth of thought. The idea of a criminal presence should lead us not to walk down a dark alley at night more than any instinctive animal bristling. Likewise making choices in the face of only having one life to live is not benefited by feeling the anxiety of one’s eventual end.

  • John

    Hey there Lynn! I stumbled upon your blog while searching for thoughts on the film Birdman. The I found this “regret” thing. I agree w/ you when you write, “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.” Yup. To err is human, etc etc etc… I’ve had friends in the past who’ve subscribed to the “I live my life w/ no regrets” credo. For me, it’s a sign of insecurity. A kind of false bravado/machismo. It could come down to a semantic interpretation of the word “regret,” but my feeling from people who consistently claim to have no regrets is one of a type of arrogance. To actually claim to have never made a mistake in life that you regret is to basically claim to be a perfect human being. Blechhhh…

    Even before reading this “regret” post, I noticed immediately that you’d done a bunch of stuff here on movies. So I figured there’d be a reference to Magnolia from you in this post. Since there isn’t, I thought this short vid might be appropriate for the subject/blog (I believe it’s in line w/ your thoughts, and mine):

    Keep up the good work, Lynn. I’ll be commenting on your Birdman (best film of the year…) post soon 🙂


    • lynncinnamon

      Haven’t seen Magnolia in forever! thanks : )