Monday, May 25, 2009


I find “regret” to be fascinating. We, as members of the human race, all seem to view regret differently. I know people who wallow in sadness over past regrets. These are the people that cannot forgive themselves for choices that they’ve made and are constantly bringing up things from the past that cannot be changed. These tend, in my opinion, to be the pessimists of the world who don’t think the future is very bright. They spend so much time reliving past miseries that it is difficult to imagine anything better.

And then, at the opposite end of the spectrum, are the folks who proudly boast that they “don’t believe in regret”. What does that mean, anyway? I actually know several people who say this, and it is something I don’t fully understand (which, I suppose, is why I find it so fascinating).

What does it mean to “believe” in regret? Does that mean that you must solely focus on the things you’ve done (or not done) and let it hold you back? Or does it mean that you acknowledge those poor choices, learn from them, and try to do better the next time around?

Personally, I’m a follower of the second train of thought. I think if a person ignores regret, they are missing an opportunity for growth. And that’s not to say that I don’t think people ought to move forward, because obviously I do. But I think if we look at a choice that’s been made as something that really doesn’t matter, then we are being wasteful of a gift we’ve been given.

Regret can mean a lot of different things, really; contrition, disappointment, penitence, grief, remorse, etc. But really, it’s all about doing something or not doing something that affected your life (or someone else’s life) in a negative way. It’s been said that when you die, you will have more regret for the things you’ve not done than for the things you’ve done. I suppose I’ll have to wait until my deathbed to test that theory.

We’ve all been faced with a crossroad in life; that one decision that veered you to the left or right. You know, in your heart of hearts, that if you’d made a different choice at that pivotal moment, your life would be vastly different than it is today. Some people may regret that choice, some people may be oblivious to the fact that they even had a choice, and some people will be satisfied with the choice that they made. And sometimes the choice we’re faced with cannot have a perfect outcome; for instance, when you must choose from the lesser of two evils, as the saying goes. In that instance, regret must also come with a healthy dose of resignation.

Probably my biggest regret in life is not finishing college (*gulp* it’s hard to admit that publicly). But I was faced with one of those lesser of two evils choices years ago. Either give up college (for the time being), or move four states away from the man who is now my husband. I know it is a little cliché, but it is what it is. I’ve often said over the years that I would go back to college and “fix” that little regret, and I do regret that I haven’t done it yet. But, to be honest, I’m glad I have that regret, because I feel it there constantly niggling in the back of my mind and I KNOW that someday that regret is going to push me enough to actually do it. I feel as though if I were the kind of person who didn’t “believe” in regret, college would be the furthest thing from my mind. And that would be a shame, really.

I will admit that there are some regrets that are difficult to bear. The night my mother died, I forgot to tell her “goodnight” and “I love you” before I went to bed. In my memory, before that night I had religiously hugged her and told her goodnight and I love you every night previous to that. The regret that I was wrapped up in my own existence that particular day and forgot to say those precious words stays with me and reminds me often to tell my husband and daughter that I love them. And what if I didn’t have that regret? Would those words mean less to me? I think they would.

And what of the words that have been spoken that have caused people to cut themselves off from my life (another terrible thing to have to admit)? Do I regret those words? Well, I certainly regret the outcome, but again it is one of those lesser of two evils things. Do I say something that I feel absolutely must be said even though the consequence may be the end of a relationship? Or do I not say anything and wait for disaster to strike and be one of the people who stand around shaking their heads and saying, “I knew I should have said something,” or “I knew I should have done something”? A difficult choice to make and a regret that cannot be avoided no matter the way you go. As sad as the outcome is, I do not regret the words because they needed to be said and I can only hope that they were heard.

I will admit that there have been moments in my life when I have gotten wrapped up in regret and that sometimes it has been difficult to take a step back and look at things from an outside perspective. And, to be honest, I feel like those are instances where my regrets have held me back. By focusing too much emotional energy on something that is unchangeable, I allowed myself to stagnate for certain periods of time when I could have been moving forward and growing. And yes, I will ruefully admit that I identify more with the folks wallowing in their regret than the ones who don’t “believe”. But at the same time, I do acknowledge the damaging results that regret can cause if you don’t allow yourself the opportunity to learn and step past the regret. And the reality is that if I hadn’t gone through those difficult points in my life, I would not be the person that I am today.

On the flipside, it is a little ironic that sometimes there are things in life that you think you’ll regret and then you do them and you realize you don’t regret them at all. It’s all part of that growth. And I think it goes back to the idea that in life you will regret the things you haven’t done more than the things you have.

And I will say this: I don’t regret that I have regrets. I’m grateful to have learned from the mistakes I have made and feel I can move forward and be a better person for them.

So my question to you is: Do you believe in regret?

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