This article was originally published in Post Grad Survival Guide.
It’s a lot easier to go through life disowning your past, eschewing everything you were and trying to hide it all, than it is to take responsibility for everything, to take ownership of it all.
It’s easier to regret something than to come to terms with it.
It’s easier to regret everything than to sort and sift the good from the bad.
Regret is as much of a vicious cycle and a habit as unhappiness. It’s another type of crutch.
The thesis of Adam Phillips’ Missing Out, is that we each have two lives: the one we live, and the one we think we could have lived. Although the latter is a figment of our imaginations, we shouldn’t understate its importance, which is almost equal than that of the life we do live. At all times, no matter what we do, we are aware of what we’re missing out on and of what could have been. Adam Phillips describes our lived lives as a protracted mourning for, and a tantrum over the loss of, the life we don’t get to live.
Describing regret as a temper tantrum is a powerful image. Toddlers throw tantrums because they can’t have something they want, we feel regret because we didn’t get to have something we wanted. Is it really that different?
Regret is the price we pay for living in a society motivated by individualism, where it is assumed we each have total control of our lives and can become and experience what we want to be and to have done. It’s the price we pay for having so many options, for there always being a road less taken, for our awareness of the tradeoffs for everything.
We take time to relax, look after ourselves, connect with family and socialise — all the while aware that we should be furthering our career so we don’t regret not achieving anything on our deathbed. We stay at the office late, check email at all hours, come home too tired and short-tempered to engage with anyone — so we regret wasting our lives on work, wondering if we’ll regret not spending time with friends and family.
We regret saving money and we regret not spending it on what we wanted. We regret not taking care of our health and we regret choosing the gym over an extra hours work or not drinking cocktails with friends. We regret not pushing ourselves, and we regret being too hard on ourselves.
There’s the problem: we can regret anything. Whichever road we take, the road less taken or the road more taken, we are eschewing infinite other roads. Fall into a negative mood, start over analysing and suddenly you can end up regretting everything.
But regret is poison. It eats us up inside. No amount of wasted time and missed chances can be more damaging than regret itself.
Nothing is a greater waste of energy. Time flows forwards, one of the few physical facts we know for sure. There are no second chances, no spare lives, no backtracking, no rewinding.
‘Starting again’ is an oxymoron. There’s never anywhere to go but forwards and trying to move on when you’re drenched in regret is like running through cement: impossible. You end up regretting the time you spent regretting, and regretting that, and regretting that.
Mostly, I regret all the regret.
‘These days I seem to think a lot / about the things that I forgot to do / and all the times I had the chance to’ — Nico, These Days
We don’t need to apologise for our pasts. We don’t need to make fun of our younger selves. We don’t need to treat them like dirt — they were us, we were them and yes we’ve changed, and yes, we’ve murdered them now, but let’s stop apologising.
In a way, regret is tangled up with nostalgia.
We believe the past was somehow different: more malleable, more options than now, as if there were more possibilities and we could have made things perfect.
It’s like watching a poker match on TV where you can see everyone’s hands. It seems so obvious how the game is going to go, how it should end, the decisions everyone should make. When we look backwards, we get to see all the hands and in hindsight everything seems obvious.
Of course we should have broken up with him sooner. Of course we should have said yes to that job offer. Of course we shouldn’t have made that move.
How can we not feel regret when we could have had it all, if only we hadn’t been so stupid and blind?
But back then we could only see our own hand and we made the decisions that felt right. We made the only decisions we could, not intending to later cause regret. And sometimes we make a choice knowing we’ll regret it, but couldn’t do anything else.
There’s one line of thinking about addiction that says we should feel loving kindness towards addictions because even if we hate them now and regret ever letting them take hold, we choose them in the first place. They served a purpose and helped us survive. We shouldn’t regret them: we should thank them for their help, then let it all go. The same goes for anything. Maybe we now regret that job or relationship or path, but at the time it worked for us.
The poster girl for regret is Miss Havisham, Charles Dickens’ heartbroken spinster who sits in a crumbling mansion, dressed in a mouldering wedding dress, with the clocks stopped. She tries to freeze time, as if that will bring back the love she lost (and never had in the first place) and ends up letting decades evaporate. Stories like that (such as On Chesil Beach and Cleopatra by The Lumineers), fictional, true or exaggerated, fascinate us.
Much like stories of dramatic romances, stories of intense regret make sense because we can see ourselves in them, albeit in a more extreme form.
We all know what it’s like to see something precious slip from our fingertips, to be consumed by the vision of what could have been.
That feeling is perhaps inevitable — there’s always a different path receding in the rear view window. But there’s a freedom to recognising that and not making decisions purely motivated by a fear of regret.