Je regrette

Our forward-charging culture sees regret as a sign of weakness and failure. But how else can we learn from our past?

by 2,700 words
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Photo by Anna Pogossova/Gallery Stock

Photo by Anna Pogossova/Gallery Stock

Carina Chocano is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and Wired, among others. She is the author of Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid? (2003).

I regret everything. Decades-old decisions, things I said, things I didn’t say, opportunities I missed, opportunities I took, recent purchases, non-purchases, returns. I turn all of these things over in my mind and examine them for clues — to what, I’m not sure. All I know is that very little of what I do or fail to do escapes the constant churn of revision. It’s just the way I process experience: sceptically, and in retrospect. It’s like being a time-traveller, only instead of going back to Ancient Rome or the French Revolution, I return again and again to the traumatic sites of my own fateful (or not so fateful) forks in the road. Some people see this as self‑flagellation; I tend to think of it as a lifelong effort to reconcile the possible with the actual — a getting to know the real me. After all, as they say, we’re defined by our choices.

When I was six years old, I pulverised a friend’s brand-new Etch A Sketch. Actually, he wasn’t my friend — our mothers were friends, I didn’t know him all. He was a little bit older than me — maybe seven or eight — and I found him aloof and intimidating. He lived in an enormous modern house made of glass and concrete, with an exterior staircase that led to a balcony overlooking a terrace and pool. We were visiting Lima, where my Peruvian parents were from, from suburban New Jersey, and I felt like a fish out of water — shy, awkward, foreign, weird. At some point, I broke away from the other kids and went up to the balcony to be alone with the Etch A Sketch, which the boy had received for Christmas a few days earlier. Alone, I was gripped by the sudden urge to balance the Etch A Sketch on the balcony railing. Even as the idea was forming in my mind, I knew that its risks far outweighed its dubious rewards, and that I’d live to regret it. I was still thinking these thoughts as I watched the Etch A Sketch fall through the air and land in one piece with a sickening crunch. When I picked it up, it made a sound like a maraca. The knobs moved but no lines appeared on the screen. I then placed the Etch A Sketch carefully on a nearby chair, went to find my mother, and told her I had a headache and wanted to go home.

Remorse, it seems to me, would have been the more appropriate response to having destroyed my young host’s shiny new present from Santa, but that would have involved a degree of empathy that I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t feel for him. Somewhere deep down, I interpreted his cool self-possession as contemptuous indifference or outright disdain, and in enacting my tiny rebellion, I succeeded only in manifesting my worst fears about myself. In my fit of alienation and insecurity, I’d turned myself into the person I thought he thought I was: The weirdo who broke his new toy. And I’d made sure he’d remember me that way forever.

There’s a particular disdain for regret in US culture. It’s regarded as self-indulgent and irrational — a ‘useless’ feeling. We prefer utilitarian emotions, those we can use as vehicles for transformation, and closure. ‘Dwelling’, we tend to agree, gets you nowhere. It just leads you around in circles.

Regret is so counter to the pioneer spirit — with its belief in blinkered perseverance, and dogged forward motion — it’s practically un-American. In the US, you keep your squint firmly planted on the horizon and put one foot in front of the other. There’s something suspiciously female, possibly French, about any morbid interiority.

Best, then, to treat the past like an overflowing closet: just shut the door and walk away. ‘What’s done is done,’ we say. ‘It is what it is.’ ‘There’s no use crying over spilt milk.’

Sometimes, the prevalence of this point of view makes me feel regret toward my tendency toward regret. It’s hard not to feel bad when your way of processing experience is routinely pathologised, or dismissed offhand as whiny, weak, and useless. As I write this, I regret writing it because I fear it makes me sound more neurotic than I really am. At the same time, I worry that it makes me sound exactly as neurotic as I actually am, and I regret not having done a better job of keeping this under wraps. I regret regretting things all the time, because surely I could be putting my imagination to better use. What’s more, I regret that I’m compelled to talk about my regrets, not just in therapy, but at dinner, at the playground, on the phone, and in print. I regret these things in part because I’m acutely aware of how my regrets are perceived when I express them. What I want are deep explorations of parallel universes and alternative outcomes. But what I get in return are sad-eyed smiles, gentle pats on the arm, and the occasional rousing pep talk, which is never what I’m after.

The assumption is that these ruminations stem from a flaw in my character, or an unresolved trauma, or some questionable behaviourist conditioning. It’s a neurobiological glitch, maybe, or a bad habit. And all of these might apply, but I also think I’m driven by a combination of pragmatism and curiosity. Whenever I come up against a problem, or find myself plagued by questions I can’t answer, my impulse is to lift up the hood of my day-to-day denial and complacency and dive into the intricate circuitry of my past in search of whatever minor gasket malfunction sparked the powder train that eventually blew up the spacecraft. I guess in some way, I’ve come to think of regret as a deductive game that, although it’s almost never fun, will eventually unlock all of life’s mysteries. Is this what I intended to do? Could I have predicted this outcome? How did I get here?

The idea that maybe nothing happens for a reason is deeply unsettling to many

In the fall of my senior year of high school, my dad and I flew from Madrid, where we lived, to Boston for college interviews. My dad’s career was going off the rails at the time, but he was feeling hopeful and expansive, so when the airline misplaced his luggage, we headed straight for Brooks Brothers and then went out for lobster. My first college interview, which also happened to be my first interview of any kind, ever, was at Harvard. It hadn’t occurred to me to do anything to prepare for it, much less to try to get a sense of what to expect.

As it happened, the person who interviewed me had been a teacher at my high school in Madrid 20 years earlier. He knew my principal as well as several veteran teachers. We talked about Spain’s transition to democracy after Franco, about the way the country seemed to wake up after a deep 40-year sleep. We talked about dress codes in restaurants and porn on TV. As the interview was ending, I was suddenly struck by the feeling that I’d messed up. I’d frittered away the interview making clever observations about the politics of shorts. And even though the interviewer seemed encouraging, I decided, when it came time to work on the application form, to save my dad the $50 application fee. And neither one of my parents had anything to say about it. Yes, I could have applied and gotten rejected like everyone else. But if I had, I probably wouldn’t have blown my interview 20 years later, when I was a finalist for a fellowship. But I guess I’ll never know that, either.

Pop psychology books on the subject of regret offer easy-to-follow plans on how to eradicate it, like a virus or a muffin top. They dismiss it with titles such as Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: Overcoming Regrets, Mistakes, and Missed Opportunities (1989), No Regrets: A 10-Step Program for Living in the Present and Leaving the Past Behind (2004), and One Month to Live: 30 Days to a No-Regrets Life (2008). Regret isn’t just seen as antithetical to reason, it’s spiritually transgressive as well. Sayings such as ‘Everything happens for a reason’ inherently condemn the sort of nihilist relativism that might experience regret as proof of the random meaninglessness of life. Regret is sinful, a direct rebuke to the existence of a God that knows what he’s doing, and cares.

What these two world views, pop psychology and religion, have in common is a deep-seated need for meaning and order, for a system or a narrative that makes sense of the world. The idea that maybe nothing happens for a reason is deeply unsettling to many people. For the rationalist, regretting past events or actions is tantamount to admitting to the terrifying possibility that failing is as easy as knocking over a glass. Goal-based decision-making gives structure to what would otherwise be a series of random events, and accomplishing those goals gives the illusion of meaning. The idea that it’s always preferable to keep your eyes trained on the future, to look on the bright side, and to let go and let God take over is deeply ingrained in both rational and religious world views.

And yet something about these attitudes toward regret rankles me. They strike me not just as inhumanly opposed to emotion, but also as anti-intellectual.

In her book Regret: The Persistence of the Possible (1993), the poet and psychologist Janet Landman argues that our views on regret are shaped in large part by decision theory as it relates to the theory of economic choice. In this framework, the past must be repudiated in rational decision-making because decision theory assumes that the person making the decision is rational, informed, and able to make accurate calculations. ‘If conflicting values and demands are resolvable by the astute application of cost-benefit analysis,’ Landman writes, describing this economic idea in a nutshell, ‘then regret’ — which is both counterfactual (it dwells on what might have been, but wasn’t) and emotional (these imagined alternative scenarios spark feelings) — ‘is simply uncalled for.’

People feel they need to deny regret — deny failure — in order to stay in the game

Our discomfort with regret, she writes, reflects an ‘existential discomfort with the limits of our personal control’. The idea that human experience and behaviour can best be understood and optimised by reducing it to data has become only more entrenched since Landman wrote her book. It gets easier every day to project a future without regret; to be the best, most optimal people we can be today, so that we can look back without ambivalence. Life is not mysterious, it’s mathematics. All we have to do is track our productivity, our spending, our steps, our calorie intake. All we have to do is count our friends and likes and follows. The illusion of control that these tools grant us over every aspect of our lives is powerful. There is always something we can do today to avoid regret tomorrow. To admit regret is to admit to a previous failure of self-control. ‘In the reigning economic models of decision, human beings are “calculating machines” who decide their preferences based on calculations of utilities and probabilities,’ Landman writes. ‘We deny regret in part to deny that we are now or have ever been losers.’

In a culture that believes winning is everything, that sees success as a totalising, absolute system, happiness and even basic worth are determined by winning. It’s not surprising, then, that people feel they need to deny regret — deny failure — in order to stay in the game. Though we each have a personal framework for looking at regret, Landman argues, the culture privileges a pragmatic, rationalist attitude toward regret that doesn’t allow for emotion or counterfactual ideation, and then combines with it a heroic framework which equates anything that lands short of the platonic ideal with failure. In such an environment, the denial of failure takes on magical powers. It becomes inoculation against failure itself. To express regret is nothing short of dangerous. It threatens to collapse the whole system.

In starting to lay out the possible uses of regret, Landman quotes William Faulkner. ‘The past,’ he wrote in 1950, ‘is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Great novels, Landman points out, are often about regret: about the life-changing consequences of a single bad decision (say, marrying the wrong person, not marrying the right one, or having let love pass you by altogether) over a long period of time. Sigmund Freud believed that thoughts, feelings, wishes, etc, are never entirely eradicated, but if repressed ‘[ramify] like a fungus in the dark and [take] on extreme forms of expression’. The denial of regret, in other words, will not block the fall of the dominoes. It will just allow you to close your eyes and clap your hands over your ears as they fall, down to the very last one.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that people’s greatest regrets revolve around education, work, and marriage, because the decisions we make around these issues have long-term, ever-expanding repercussions. The point of regret is not to try to change the past, but to shed light on the present. This is traditionally the realm of the humanities. What novels tell us is that regret is instructive. And the first thing regret tells us (much like its physical counterpart — pain) is that something in the present is wrong.

Some years ago, I was working at a job I liked when I was approached about another, higher-paying job. In fact, it paid so much more that I was convinced my current job would never match it. I don’t know what I based this knowledge on, having never had a similar experience, but I did. The process of interviewing for the new job was secretive and stressful, and it made it hard to get advice from people who might have helped. When I got the offer, I did get advice from someone I knew in finance. ‘Don’t base your decision on the money,’ she said. ‘Decide where you’d rather be and don’t try to start a bidding war. In the end, you’ll be resented for it.’ This advice came from someone who made more money than I ever would, for whom the money — beyond a certain a level — became theoretical. But it didn’t apply to my situation. While the money wasn’t entirely the point, it was unignorable.

I took the job, declined to listen (embarrassingly) to counteroffers from my employer, which caused hard feelings, and immediately regretted it. At the end of my first day, feeling as if I’d entered the Twilight Zone, I called my friend from the car, very upset. ‘I made a huge mistake!’ I said. She took command. ‘It’s too late now,’ she said. ‘You made your decision. What’s done is done.’ It took a couple of years for me to realise that this was the second bit of bad advice I’d received in relation to this decision. Both stemmed from a total rejection of things that are hard to quantify, and a slavish belief in the primacy of quick, decisive action over ambivalence, ambiguity, and mixed feelings.

It’s in this privileging of reason unfettered by emotion, this thinking of people as ‘calculating machines’ that Landman suggests we’ve gone all wrong. The problem lies in clinging to absolutes and falling for false dichotomies. Sometimes, our assessment of reality is faulty, or obsolete, or weirdly ideological, or based on false dichotomies such as reason vs emotion, or the past vs the present.

Mixed feelings are not only what make us human, they’re what make us truly rational. They help us arrive at complicated truths by way of a dialectic process. Rather than deny regret, we should embrace ambivalence. We should strive for an ideal — that is, behave as if it’s possible for an absolute ideal to exist — while remembering that it doesn’t, that in fact outcomes are random, and that all possibilities exist simultaneously.

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Comments

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    We learn every thing from our mistake on the contrary success made us arrogant.Success after success is harmful to our health,mental peace.Mistake catastrophe are our best teachers. Nietzsche says "The secrete of reaping the greatest fruit fullness and greatest enjoyment of life is to live dangerously.".Heroin of Mahabharata Kunti requested lord Krishna" O dear keep me always in danger in catastrophe so I can live consciously".I think regret is not proper word to describe to live joyful life in catastrophe because mistakes are making our life more truthful on the contrary successful life is boring life

  • Vernon Goddard

    What an indulgence.......to spend considerable time regretting past decisions. Today and in the now, one can make real choices, influence things particularly in one's own life but the past and indulging in it is a little counter productive. By all means review occasionally but to be preoccupied is to be obsessed.........and we know where that can lead.....

  • Archies_Boy

    Yes, there is a time for regret, and with it resolution to never repeat the mistake. But regret is not something on which to base one's *whole life*. She "regrets everything." How pathetic a life she must live, sounds like she's incapable of learning from her mistakes. "Regret for the past is a waste of spirit." —AA proverb. I regret having read this ridiculous piece. But not for long...

    • RicinBeans

      Regret is by no means a choice. Do you think the author wakes up and plans her day with time slots for sitting down and fretting over her past? It's ludicrous to propose that one must either always learn a lesson from every mistake or simply eradicate all the emotions, ruminations and memories associated with that mistake and move forward. Good for you if your past just dissipates as if it were in the wake of a moving boat. You must just pause momentarily to either pat yourself on the shoulder or slap yourself on the wrist. That, quite frankly, sounds like a 'pathetic life', if you want to throw that term around.

      The author isn't talking about stubbing her toe on the corner of a coffee table and then later remembering to be careful when walking near that table. She's exploring the complex mixed emotions, scenarios, and scattered and sometimes shoddy advice associated with making decisions. Reflecting on why you made a certain decision and what was going on at that time and how you felt and comparing those states to those of your current situation is the only way that (to use your term again) pathetic people with their pathetic fretting actually are able to minimize regret in the future. That's the author's point, and she does a brilliant job in elucidating that. Your point of view is already out there, in the tons of pop culture books that she mentions and to which she offers a counter-point. Had you read it past the first three words before staking your claim, maybe you'd see that she doesn't agree with that ideology and that's why she was compelled to write this.

    • Pawl

      How pathetic your life must be if you go around insulting people without foundation

  • Jeffrey Guterman PhD

    There is an important distinction between regret and guilt. Regret means I am sorry it happened and let me be determined not to repeat it. Guilt, on the other hand, means that I am a bad person for committing the mistake and deserve to be blamed for the act. Humans are fallible by nature. Hence, making a mistake does not make one a bad person. This does not mean one should be exonerated for bad or immoral acts. If we reflect on the past, however, it does no good to blame oneself. I say feel very regretful but not guilty for past mistakes and most importantly, be determined to learn from them.

    • Barry

      Not true. Guilt means taking some form of responsibility. If you can't blame yourself then you can't blame anyone. We are living in a society headed in that direction. One needs to own up and accept blame or credit honestly. What you have written is damn foolishness.

      • MaryZ

        I think you both make good points. The problem with guilt is that it does serve only to create a destructive emotional state; it tends, I'd say, to have corrosive impact in response to realization of a mistake made. It does not create an effective internalized resource of redemption. But, I also think we Americans do have a too flippant response to the impact of our bad choices. There needs to be a real soul-searching mid-point between regret and guilt. For me, one of the most cogent parts in this piece is about Freud: "that repressed thoughts, etc., are never entirely eradicated, but ‘[ramify] like a fungus in the dark and [take] on extreme forms of expression.’ The denial of regret, in other words, will not block the fall of the dominoes. It will just allow you to close your eyes and clap your hands over your ears as they fall, down to the very last one." So, the 'look only to the future' American way, I think, leaves dirty remains under the covers that have cancerous effect on society ... and us, as individuals, of course... maybe keeping psychologists in business. ;-D

        • Barry

          You may well written and fine points. Mine are more fundamental. If we are cruel bastards and we don't experience shame, regret and loss, then what are we...? Empty.

  • john visher

    The modern world is focused on pleasure and suffering, not joy and laughter. Regret, guilt, optimism, ambition, success, failure, are all essential pieces of such modern societies. Regret is part of this picture, in a negative sense -- we go to war, overwork ourselves, over invest because of ubiquitous insistent voices whispering and shouting that "we will regret it if we don't."

    • Clare Mirage McCall

      I'm Clare Mirage McCall and mockworkclockingbird@gmail.com is my email account. Can you explain what manner of password is required to join and leave comments? Clearly, I'm not able to grasp why the fact that simply entering my user-name and email bring up the question of whether I already have an account. An account with Disqus? Facebook? Gmail? What sort of password is being sought so I can participate in this excellent forum?

      • babby660

        looks like you made it, congrats!

  • ooddiss

    I feel that a lot of the mental noise I have between my ears is the rumination over my past actions. Regrets take up a lot of mental space for me personally, but reflection on my past actions is a valuable tool in order to enact constructive change.

    Removing emotions from regrets tends to give the backbone view of the choices one has made. Yes, emotions add the flesh, giving choices a greater degree of context. Though, emotional reflection has a tendency to get away from the real reason, clouding it with powerful emotions such as guilt.

    Regret, and its partner suffering are inherent to a good life. Both giving meaning and context. They provide a path (which can be both forward bearing or backwards) depending on how me mediate on them. I reflect strongly with your point in the trivializing of regret (and suffering) that comes from the Anglosphere.

    Life is a journey, like every journey is not the destination that defines the word, rather it is the process in itself.

  • FARW

    Really liked it. I am currently at the biggest fork of my life thus far. I've been ruminating over huge regrets for a while now. I can tell you these ruminations play a huge role in my current decision making. And yet, the decision will really just be the equivalent of a coin toss. I can't possibly know the outcome either way. Just like I couldn't know back then my decicisons would lead me here instead of where I wish I'd be, where I think, with hubris, I deserve or ought to be. Really, to quote Taleb, we are just fooled by randomness and we know it, yet we still try to decipher meaning through the background noise of life.

  • Raghavendra

    Regret is a self-feeding monster. So, for example, regretting marrying someone, is stronger than regretting not marrying someone (unless that someone does not live out of your sight). Regretting buying a house is much stronger than regretting not buying it (As I experience it everyday).

    I feel, regretting not doing something is just a faint, irregular and ignore-able pain unlike regretting doing something.

  • hb

    Good article and conclusion. It has always worried me how the biggest decisions in life usually come down to the smallest factors, a coin toss as someone below said. Two things I hold onto: seek good counsel and learn to trust your instincts.

  • Renzo Bruni

    The emotional species of regret is first cousin to anger, for what you regret about your own actions, if done to you by someone else, would make you angry. It is also has a tendency to cycle, which we call rumination. That is a cardinal feature of depression and personally I am not sure which comes first, the depression or the rumination.
    The cerebral species of regret is like notations in the margins of a difficult text, which clarify or expand the meaning of the main paragraph; and like the 'examined life' of Socrates can make life more worthy of living.

  • Mercanna

    I've noticed this culture does not accept regret, either. It's a taboo. How often I've watched t.v., or heard people in real life say things, like "I've never regretted anything I've ever done in my life". How can that be possible, even as a child? If a person has half a brain, they will notice that any action they do has a reaction, a consequence. I applaud you for tackling this issue, and stating your own supposed "weakness", by saying that you've made mistakes, and regret them, even everyday. I probably was first confronted with the big idea of "regret" and the choices people make when my father chose to kill my mom and then himself when I was a child. There were many lessons I learned from that, but one was that how different my life would have been if he had not done that, and it's made me think about what I do. You will be forced to think of the past if it was stolen from you, and from that moment you will spend a lifetime of hours ruminating the why's and how's, and wondering about choices, and choices are tied inexorably with regret, and that's not a bad thing, that's a part of being human, like you said. I've made good and bad choices in my life, just as my dad did. Ruminating and being nostalgic, thinking of the past, how can you go to the future without it? How can you keep alive loved ones who have passed away, if you don't remember, but only forge ahead? People just need to stop and think more, even if it's painful sometimes.

  • joe

    A Regret - the house cocktail at the Wilno Tavern

  • Simon Very
  • Gary Olson

    An example of delusion in the absence of honest regret is to hear someone say "It all worked out for the best." Really? That makes me feel better? Frankly, I would never trust anyone who says they have no regrets; they are either not being honest or they are sociopathic.

  • Simon Very

    I left a link here to an article showing that a large research project had demonstrated that rumination was the more correlated with depression than any other factor that has so far been measured. Apparently this was not appreciated.

    • Lynn Pounian

      I just read what you linked. That study's findings don't contradict this essay.
      There's a difference between between regret and ceaseless rumination. Reflection on past sorrows and mistakes is critical to our development as human beings. Obsessing over them is another matter entirely.

      Also, you're upset because a link you offered (sans explanation ) in an anonymous comments section was "apparently not appreciated"? Perhaps a little more self-reflection would actually do *you* some good.

      • simon very

        Take 2 of reply. (Take 1 crashed).

        I thought my comment was deleted because I misunderstood how comments are displayed on aeon.
        I doubt rumination and regret are easily separable for most people.
        Depression is sometimes appropriate but I'd beware of tempting it.

        • Lynn Pounian

          Ugh, that has happened to me on several occasions.

          I will always believe that a little bit of self-reflection - complete with regret when warranted - is healthy for the soul.

          All the best.

  • David R. Goodman

    Ahem. I regret not treating drinks I had with Ms. Chocano at El Coyote in Los Angeles circa 2001 as a date and possibly the first step toward a relationship with someone wonderful.

  • Eli Hamilton

    A decent article, but the author hardly left me with a tangible reason to accept regret into my life. She implies that ignoring regret can prevent happiness, though it is not clear why. She mentions that to block out regret is to hum to yourself as your life falls to ruin. Is this so? If it is, then the one who does not regret may have a healthy relationship to the randomness of life, because she smiles nevertheless; perhaps picking up the pieces once the chips fall. In any event, this is all conjecture, beside the point that I think the author should give a more positive case for regret. I ask, `Why, if it is so commonly known to be destructive, should we think the author is anything but trenchant and self-effacing?' I think the case can be made; I think you could even argue that regret is the process wherein I locate myself in my unfolding history, something she alludes to, and so can serve as a positive assertion of autonomy and will. Perhaps it would also allow the author to express a view of life that isn't pure randomness, which is of course an attractive view though it is obviously wrong. But the article leaves me without much of a reason for regret other than that someone said she prefers it to its absense. I would love a follow up article, where the author uses her anecdotes better. For example, why was her friends advice bad? It is only bad, within the contexts of THIS article because the author says regret is good. Give us some meat, what went for the worse because you took her advice? If you cannot give that, then only those who already agree with you will consider your position, as you can see from these comments.

  • basilnova

    Viva Morrissey!

  • J-Roc

    I do not believe that regret is a useful emotion when it is recurring. It implies being stuck with actions from the past and not taking control of the present at hand. What defines us is the sum of all the actions that we have committed to in our lifetime up to this day. Neither good intentions, nor noble thoughts will make a difference to the true definition of our existence. There are many points in life where we have to make decisions where we will choose between following the path towards attaining our culture's indoctrinated measures of happiness and the practically undefinable personal, private inclinations to feeling at peace. It is in these precise moments that we must ensure that we will not have regret, but to embrace our nature regardless of the uncertain paths that this decision will take us. The only form of true regret is that of not being true to yourself. If you follow your instincts and base all your decisions on your best perception of yourself, then you will never be able to have true regrets, because you have shaped yourself towards becoming the best person you can think of. If we get to a point where we feel regret of a decision that got us to a situation where we do not want to be in, then we must not indulge in loathing over actions from the past, but make new decisions that will make the most of the position that we are in NOW!

  • Ron

    The article finishes with the notion that "all possibilities exist simultaneously." That seems to be a sop for making the wrong decisions and not being at fault for doing so. Unfortunately, nothing happens simultaneously, and certainly not possibilities.

  • Renaissance Nerd

    A very interesting article and one I agree with to a point. I disagree that 'the culture' as a whole is against regret. It might once have been, where there was a single American culture, but now it is fragmented and often diametrically opposed to itself. If you speak of popular culture, then you're spot on; I've seen lots of movies with the 'I got no regrets' thing in them, and people who actually ape movies instead of quoting them might also be living unexamined lives. To say one has no regrets for mistakes is simply foolish. To have no regrets is to make no mistakes, which is ridiculous. It is a kind of arrogance to assert that 'what I am now' is so wonderful that any horrible cruelties I inflicted on others were worth it, because I still reached my present superior position of utter stupendousness.

    The things I regret most are all cruel little barbs I didn't need to say, and I don't care if I've risen above such things now; I still wish I'd had the wisdom to avoid being needlessly cruel always. If you hit your thumb a hundred times while building a house, you might consider the pain worthwhile, because your house is built; but it would still have been better to avoid breaking your thumb. You can regret it without considering the house accursed because of errors.

    Living in the past is not the same thing as regretting past mistakes. And examining life, trying to improve oneself, necessitates regret. If one doesn't regret mistakes then why avoid them in future? Like so many other parts of life, the key here is balance. Nothing wrong with forging on full speed ahead, and nothing wrong with a quick glance behind to remind one of paths to avoid. Leave either one by the wayside, and suffering ensues. "What a pitie it is to see a proper Gentleman to have such a crick in his neck that he cannot look backward!" (Thomas Fuller)

    Yet it's also good to get up after a fall, dust oneself thoroughly, and forge onward. "We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths." (Walt Disney)

    No reason both can't be true. But that would mean NOT running after the latest pseudo-intellectual fad.

  • Alix

    I regret nothing. Because in every experience, in every choice and gesture, there is a positive outcome; something you've learned, that made you wiser, stronger. Because things could've turned out differently, but then what you like, love, have today would'nt exist. It would only be something else. Other loves, others likes, you would detain other strenghs, certainties, ...
    After all, it's all about choice. And there is no good, nor bad choice. Only a better choice when compared. Only the fear of not making the best of all choices.
    And there is no failure. Only feedback.

  • Shaddyj

    It could be as simple as your mother telling you to "retrace your steps" when you were a kid. Funny how something so simple can lead to something so complex. However someone smart did once say that "the unexamined life" isn't worth living. I believe looking back is how we make ourselves better. It's a way of learning from experiences and provides valuable insight into who we are and who we can become.

  • http://batman-news.com Elise

    Moi aussi. Perhaps the most I can offer is that I, as an imperfect human being, have done the best I could with the circumstances and knowledge I’ve had at the time and in keeping with my own values. None of us lives in a vacuum. We have available choices. I long was counseled by professionals referring to “choices and consequences” as glibly as they pronounced, “We can’t control others’ behavior; we can only control how we react to their behavior.”

    I cannot simply choose for others to be guided by conscience. Among my enduring regrets is that I reacted humanly, but admittedly very poorly, to choices made for and about me by others, and thus, to the circumstances I was allowed; and, that with my reactions, I caused unintended emotional hurt to others. I believe I’ve accepted responsibility and been held accountable for my regrettable reactions. I regret paying consequences for others’ poor choices and lack of conscience.

    Sometimes, regret may fold out as “I’m sorry. . .that you’re a remorseless idiot!” To have made these statements makes me vulnerable to other tags: victimization, blame game, etc. I can’t alter the past; I can only strive toward accomplishment of transforming personal regrets into positive change for myself and others.

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