Living a life free of regrets is everybody's goal, isn't it? From the #noregrets hashtag on social media to the plethora of inspirational quotes that are part of Instagram's DNA, being a happy, modern person means looking back at your life with nary a "If only I ..." Right?
Not so fast.
Let's pull this apart a bit. The idea of living a regret-free life is based on the solid life advice that you might hear from a parent, a life coach or your best friend when you're thinking of making a change: "You'll only regret the things you didn't do." That's a great idea when you're stuck in a rut and need motivation.
But where did the idea come from? A couple of influences can explain how we got to the amped-up idea of living without looking back.
Looking back, regretfully
The first is the heartbreaking hospice nurse story. There are a few of these circulating, but they amount to the same idea — someone who works with the dying has put together a list of regrets they've heard from those who are preparing to die. Included are ideas like spending more time with friends and family and less time at work, practicing forgiveness and being more kind. This is good general life advice, of course. But these articles usually include more amorphous ideas like following your dreams, being yourself and taking risks. In this way, the articles suggest, you will find yourself regret-free when you find yourself at death's door.
Then there's the "I don't regret the things I've done, they've made me stronger" narrative, which inevitably quote Mark Twain (including this one.)
“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Another source of the regret-less life idea comes from the poet William F. O'Brien:
Some say risk nothing, try only for the sure thing,
Others say nothing gambled nothing gained,
Go all out for your dream.
Life can be lived either way, but for me,
I'd rather try and fail, than never try at all, you see.
Some say "Don't ever fall in love,
Play the game of life wide open,
Burn your candle at both ends."
But I say "No! It's better to have loved and lost,
Than never to have loved at all, my friend."
When many moons have gone by,
And you are alone with your dreams of yesteryear,
All your memories will bring you cheer.
You'll be satisfied, succeed or fail, win or lose,
Knowing the right path you did choose.
But what if regrets aren't so bad? What if, rather than proof of a life squandered, they are sign of a life well-lived? As Carl Richards writes for the New York Times:
Just imagine what a life with no regrets would look like. It would mean you never screwed up, that you never had to make tough choices and that you were never limited by time, energy or money (which basically means you’re really Superman). While that kind of life may sound nice at face value, just pause for a second to think about what it would mean.
Contemplating a life with regrets
If you never screwed up, you would never learn. If you never made tough choices, you would never have been interested in more than one thing at a time. If you never had limitations … well, you’re not Superman, so just forget it. "You can regret your regrets all you want. But without them, you wouldn’t have lived much of a life," Richards writes.
I felt confused after reading his article, as I had tried (and failed) to live by the idea of "no regrets." What Richards wrote made sense to me. Which perspective was right? So I posted the article on Facebook and asked my friends for their perspectives.
Ina Kornfield thinks the idea of "no regrets" is delusional nonsense. (Ina used a spicier word, but you get the drift.) But "I do also abide by the 12-step ideals that 'We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it,' because really, it has made is who we are, and presumably, after enough recovery, we'll be people we like and respect."
MNN's Robin Shreeves wrote of some of her particular regrets. She seems to have come to terms with those mistakes, though, from giving up a trip abroad to giving away her favorite high-top sneakers. "I love my life. The things I regret have not ruined it," she wrote.
She wasn't alone in enumerating specific regrets. Most of the people who responded to my post listed two or three major life regrets that kept them up at night. Which obviously means that most people have significant things they wish they could change about the past.
But because regrets are so common, perhaps living with them in a healthy way should be the goal, rather than aiming to avoid them.
Stacy Malkan, from California, was philosophical about the idea of regret, taking the birds-eye view. She thinks regrets as a necessary part of the whole: "Every choice is inseparable from others, from what happens from there and from who we are. And aren't we here to experience who we are?"
Because I already have some regrets in my life, I'm never going to have none, so it seems more realistic to change the way I think of them. And when I do consider one of my top regrets — staying in my crummy high school for four years instead of getting my GED at 16 and going to community college — I realize that regret is indeed tied to other things I don't regret, as Stacy pointed out. I had a lot of fun my senior year of high school, since I didn't attend class much, and was able to spend time reading on my own, hanging out in New York City and going to concerts. I saw dozens of bands that year that I would never have the chance to see again, and I still ended up going to a college that was really ideal for me. My college experience is something I highly value.
In other words, regrets are part of the whole.
Or, as Sarah Silverman told Fast Company, "If you don’t look at your old sh*t and cringe, you’re not growing."