Sunday, January 8, 2017

Musings on Regret

"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

Before I go any further, I want to ask folks to please refrain from telling me, or anyone else who might express similar feelings, how useless, pointless or irrelevant regret is.  Regret may indeed be all or some of those things, but saying such to someone who expresses that this is the emotion that they are feeling is at the least inconsiderate and worse, totally invalidating.  And when someone is sharing their pain generally what they need is someone to listen and not give advice - at least not unless it is asked for.

I am sure that there is some evolutionary psychologist out there who has made the attempt to explain why humans feel regret.  They might say it is akin to guilt, that it helps us to figure out those things that take away from our tribe's ability to survive. Regret makes us feel bad because we did something that isn't beneficial or helpful or that furthers the good future of our particular group or family.  When you feel bad about something you are less likely to repeat the action.

Regret, though, can also be about all of the things we never dared, the things we set aside in order to do something that society deemed better or more safe or that we just found made us less afraid. Regret can be so deeply personal, and it is usually fueled by hindsight.  Which  might be why so many say it is a useless feeling because a big reason why we regret certain decisions is because we now know how the choices we made turned out.

And if those choices turned out not so great, well the other must surely have been better.

We only have a certain number of years allotted to us.  The path we choose can take decades to play out and when we realize that perhaps it was not the best choice to have made, we have fewer decades remaining ahead than we have behind us.  I am quite sure that more than one midlife crisis has been fueled by such realizations.

We should have a national holiday for regret, where everyone is allowed to openly grieve for the roads not taken, the loves not pursued, the joys left behind.  We would line up and process past an open and empty casket; a wake for all of our unspoken poor choices.  Candles would be lit for each forgotten dream and flowers laid at the foot of the statue of an angel who looks over their shoulder weeping with one foot raised ready to step ahead into the future anyway.

Later, over a feast of food and drink, we'd share the stories of how we thought things might have turned out.  We'd admonish all of the children who have been allowed to stay up late to hear the tales to listen to their hearts, to care more, live more, love more.  And later, as we make our way to slumber, we'd wonder how many listened.

I think most of us eventually learn to live with the choices we have made.  We learn to carry, as best we can, whatever regret, sadness and grief come our way and keep walking ahead anyway.  We learn to enjoy the moments of peace or happiness that we find because we know how fleeting they can be.

Perhaps that is the lesson in regret, not to learn to not repeat past mistakes, but instead to appreciate and cherish the times when we, despite all of our human flaws, actually get it right.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this; I appreciated and gained from reading it. I think I worry about the risk of becoming mired in regret - stuck in a place of self-flagellation and grief. A conscious ritual like the one you describe welcomes feelings of regret and also helps to release them or at least move forward. Also, sharing wisdom learned from regret with youth is a great idea. I think adults sometimes try and prevent young people from having the same regrets but end up being too controlling because they haven't felt or grieved their regrets.. very thought-provoking, thanks again!