To be honest, yes, I regret some things. On looking over the course of my younger life, I made a lot of mistakes. And I have spent a lot of time nursing the costs of those mistakes.
I regret not writing sooner. Perhaps I could have avoided the mental breakdown I had that wrecked a vital part of my early adult life. I would have had some kind of outlet, more of a sense of myself, a better sense of purpose in life… maybe.
I regret leaving a boyfriend, a bad habit of smoking tobacco, leaving home to go to a university where a guy I was hopelessly infatuated with was also going to – with his beautiful girlfriend, not studying art and yes, I’ve done all these other things, things I’ve been ashamed of, things I wish I hadn’t done.
Damn right I regret stuff and most of all, I regret the lack of discipline and drive when young to search for the higher issues in life, to learn about the things of deeper significance in our world – of world events, politics, science and philosophy. I regret all that time I wasted that I had in spades when young.
‘Non, je ne regrette rien! Non, je ne regrette rien!’ Edith Piaf might sing amidst the majestic strains of her famous, iconic song. But it exasperates me how others can so blithely say that about their lives. Regret, they seem to say, is something only weak, inferior people feel. It’s not something you should feel. You should be happy with the course of your life the way it goes and be courageous about it. Great people don’t ever regret things. You should repress regret by denying that you ever feel it. You should be like Piaf and go for the great, grand heroic swan dive before you die. After all, regrets are the damnation in the shadow of your grave in a world where even the most religious believe that Hell may not exist. Nobody wants to die with any regrets. Dying with regrets seems to be a fate worse than death.
Scientists ponder whether the fabric of reality consists of a huge multiverse where one might be living simultaneously in literally countless numbers of them, except that in each universe one does things differently and thus there are countless different outcomes. But somehow, we are conscious of only one life. This one. With each sunrise and sunset, waking and sleeping and doing and shopping we are trapped in it, day after day.
From Philosophy Quotes on Twitter came a missive one day remarking ‘there is no one best future’. And yes that may be right. Of all the possible outcomes the mighty multiverse may hold of the simultaneous courses of all our different lives so far, how do we know which is the best one?
Maybe if I’d married that former boyfriend it might have exploded in a mess of marital vituperative and custody battles at 20 paces in one life, for instance. Maybe I would have had success as a writer and banged out a number of best sellers, only never to really understand what the process of writing really can do in terms of sense-making and discovery.
On the other hand, I could perhaps have had a brilliantly fulfilling life without the marring shadow of mental illness at all. Maybe I could have a number of best futures out there along with the worst ones and this one I’m in right now is the middling, slogging, muddling-through one. Ahh, subjunctive mode: ‘If I had have known X, I would not have done Y’…
My life has been an unpredictable life of accidents, maybe of forces I am not entirely in control of. Who does have total control over the forces of circumstances in their lives? Some get lucky, others labour under the shadow of a sudden landslide who might have had similar if not more success by being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes taking one’s perfectly good chances doesn’t pay off. Is it healthy to measure oneself up to some ideal of the perfect, soaring, regret-free life? Especially if there is no one best future.
I came across an old high-school teacher I had for Social Science on a Friends Reunited website. On his profile, he said something like that he was glad he never had one single purpose in his life, that he’d gone wherever life accidentally led him, whatever he took an interest in at the moment.
But it is not easy to live the slow, winding, discursive, unpredictable life of accidents. Regret is a raw, human emotion in the midst of attempting to look at things in a new light. It can be a way of treating the hurt gained through the bad accidents and stuff-ups in life by revisiting that invisible cross-road, reflecting on it, trying to do something about it before it’s too late – to treat people better, to make the most of any second chances, to learn from past mistakes.
Regret can be an acknowledgement of responsibility too. I imagine the regret one would feel in killing someone in a car accident would be acute and life-long. No conscionable person would feel otherwise. There would always be that sense of what might-have-been if one had taken more care, taken a different route, or not gone out for a drive at all that day.
Perhaps refusing to acknowledge regret, to suppress feeling regret could be the worst thing one could do. Because after the initial pain, can come reflections, realisations, plans of action for the future. Regret – painful as it is – can be helpful in the process of learning from mistakes, which is one of the important, life-changing lessons anyone can learn. It can help one survive, make the most of what they have, live in the present and become a better person.
I had a number of personal convictions when young and one of them was to be free to make my own mistakes. Now a litany of errors over the course of the last 30 plus years since then is staring at me. Looking back maybe I said that too lightly, because I did not fully realise then how some mistakes can hurt, cripple, maim and even kill. Mistakes were a romantic theory in my young mind – I who wanted to sally forth into the chaos of an uncertain future, take risks and repudiate forever, the dull, safe bet.
Regret has taught me that living is a constant act of becoming, that you should never be afraid of taking risks and making changes, but that you always need a Plan B before rushing off blithely off into Plan A. That sometimes a dull, safe bet can be a good, responsible one and give much in the way of personal happiness. Also that you should never, under any circumstances, go rushing off into The Blue without any plans at all.
So regret comes with the territory of a human life and frank acknowledgment of it can be a part of the process of living more wisely. But also regrets can bring one back to earth and place one in a better position to take whatever other chances that come by in this strange, unpredictable and accidental life we all lead…