On regret

14 December 2015

Sometimes it seems a higher average than usual of people in my circle of conversation and social media is feeling similar feelings and thinking similar things. There’s never any singular reason why, although that doesn’t stop me from trying assign one. Is it the time of year? The time of our lives? Existential crisis capable of viral transmission? Whatever the true cause, there is a distinct theme that’s emerged from the buzz around me lately: regret.

Maybe it is the time of year. The advent of winter, the specter of a closing calendar. Maybe it’s natural to look back, and it is true that the older one gets, the more one has to look back on. It tends to pile up, and so sometimes a quick glance over the shoulder starts an avalanche. It seems to me that we aren’t taught very well how to deal with regret. Our culture is thoroughly youth-focused, our mindset mired in optimism, our hopefulness intractable. Regret, we tell each other, is something to deny and dismiss.

As it turns out, I don’t believe in “no regrets.” I understand the positive sentiment behind it, and it’s certainly true that dwelling in regret does little good, but, in general, I find that any sort of life principle that relies on an inflexible binary ends up a tool of superficial and limited use. Regret is the best example of this. Regret can be extremely useful. It’s a motivating construct with which to examine ourselves, our decisions and our circumstances, and to understand the limitations and interactions of those factors. Without regret, there’s little growth, and even less informed, deliberate growth.

If you recognize you regret something, follow its path to the reasons why. You may find something else you need to change course in the future. Or you may find something that was not your fault. Or, most likely, you’ll find a messy combination of the two. But, whatever you find, don’t toss the regret as soon as you feel you’re done with it. Keep it. Don’t let it rule your thoughts and choices—put it away in a box that you don’t open—but don’t dismiss it. It gives shadow and definition to your life. It’s necessary, even beautiful in spots. The decision to live having integrated regret rather than denied it shows a sort of strength that all the “no regrets” in the world couldn’t match.

Of course, I see that themes in my environment present themselves to me not really because of their own frequency or strength, but because they happen to mirror a theme emerging internally. We hear most clearly the voices we’ve already learned to listen to inside our heads. These sounds I notice around me are just echoes. But I’ll listen, and take the lessons I dispense. And that may be exactly what this time of year is for.

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