On Regret

I’ve heard it said that you should live your life with no regrets. This is bullshit. We’re going to have regrets. We’re going to get things wrong and wish we could have done it differently. We’re going to wish we had said something. Not said something. Said it differently. Held out a hand instead of walking away. Walked away instead of following. Said a kind word. Put away the anger and the ego. Not had that last drink. Not made that phone call. Or perhaps making it when we didn’t.

Yesterday was my stepson’s birthday. His 27th. He died at 24. Looking back, there are a number of things I wish I had said or done. It’s a strange side-effect of tragedy that we find ourselves lacking. That we blame ourselves for actions not taken. That the outcomes might be different had we acted in some other way. As if we have that much control over the universe. That’s what this way of thinking is about, control. The amount of control we have is much more limited than we imagine, and death has a way of making that starkly evident. Regret is partly your ego trying to reassert the illusion of control over an uncaring universe. I did what I could and his choices were his choices. Knowing that doesn’t make it any easier.

We’re not perfect. We get things wrong. Reality could have unfolded in a different way. Our choices define us. Put all these things together and you have a being built for regret. Regret is one of those dark teachers that we need in our lives. Regret is a gift. Or at least a gift-bearer. Because it brings with it something important. A chance. An opportunity to learn and grow and resolve to do it better the next time around.

What matters is that we not dwell in regret. What matters is that we take the lesson that regret is trying to teach us and we commit that to our memory and our heart. Once that is done, you can let go of regret. Because what matters is what we do now. We can only live in one place, and that is here and now. To live in regret is to live in the past and where it went wrong. To live in anxiety is to dwell on the future and how wrong it could go. The key is to learn. Remember the lessons of the past and look to the present and how you can apply them to live a better now.

We are limited beings with limited information. It’s possible that those bad choices aren’t so bad as we imagine. We don’t see the counterfactual. The way things could have gone if we had done it differently. Had you made different choices you would have a different life, but nothing says it would be a better one. If you find yourself thinking about how wonderful the world would be if you had made another choice, take a moment to do the inverse - imagine how the outcome could have gone worse. I’m not suggesting this is the best of all possible worlds or that circumstances wouldn’t be better, but you can’t know. We’re biased toward optimism when it comes to the path we didn’t take. Things can always be worse. So it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that that glowing, magical life that you think you missed out on could never have existed.

Regret is an attachment to an alternate narrative. Regret is feedback. An indicator that your choices didn’t align with some ideal. Or that the outcomes weren’t worth it in the final analysis. To borrow from a commonly misattributed quote, the best we can accomplish is to do what we can, where we are, with what we have. Reflect on your decisions and learn what you can from your choices and what they manifested in the world. After that, try to put it aside because it will not serve you to dwell on it.

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