What do you regret?

“No regrets!” A motto of sorts that I remember from my teens and 20s. In one sense it was the YOLO of its time; an invitation to live a life of wildness and hedonism. In another sense it might have been a call to avoid doing things that you would regret later. In a third sense, it suggests one should have a future-looking view of life, a decoupling of one’s present from unhappy influences of past events: nostalgia, or guilt, or sorrow.

Lately I have wondered if all of those senses of the phrase are wrong. and that it may be good to have a few regrets. I don’t mean the decisions one makes in the absence of information which, had one known, one might have chosen differently. I mean, instead, the things one does which, intended or not, caused some pain to others, and the knowledge of being responsible for that pain.

A personal confession, before I explain an argument for the above proposition. My spiritual life involves posing to myself various Socratic questions designed to induce better self-awareness. Questions like the one in the title of this blog; questions to which “Nothing” is not an acceptable answer. I have discovered about myself in the last month or so, that I live with rather a lot of regret. For roads not taken, for changes turned down. For people and communities who were once kind and loving to me, and who I also loved, but nonetheless from whom I took more than I gave, or who I pushed away, or who I harmed. Some have been friends. Some have been former girlfriends and lovers. Some have been colleagues and neighbours. Some of these regrets go all the way back to my high school days. They are among the reasons I have lived most of my adult life as a bachelor — if I am alone, I do not harm anyone, and no one accuses me of doing anything wrong.

I think it may sometimes be good to have regrets. It can be a sign of having lived a complete life – complete, in the sense of including the lows that come with the highs, including the pain, including the scars, including the euphemistic ‘lessons learned’ — which really means knowledge of the consequences of bad choices, and, one would hope, the wisdom to make no such similar mistake again.

In reply, you might say, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect’. And on face value, that’s obviously true. But what is the perfection to which we are comparing ourselves? What teacher, what prophet, has preached it? What holy book describes it? And whatever it might be, does the motto itself tacitly suppose that it does not exist? What, then, is the point of comparing ourselves to perfections that do not exist? Is it only to further punish ourselves? Is it to accept ourselves as flawed and sinful? Or do we need an entirely new language by which to talk about human nature and the human condition? One in which the spectre of ‘perfection’ does not arise?

I think I can answer the latter question with Yes. A well lived life, a life of full human eudaemonia, cannot be a life of lotus-eating ignorance. It has to include some real engagement in the world, including the kind that can result in people being hurt. Because in the course of living that life, people can, and do, make bad choices. But the word for a person who causes deliberate and avoidable harm to others and who thinks it fully justified, is evil. I wonder if regret is the psychological tether-line which, while forcing us to acknowledge the things we’ve done that were wrong, also holds us back from doing worse – or becoming worse.

The next time you meet someone new and you want to get to know them, here’s a probing question to ask: “What do you regret?”

It’s like a way of asking, “In what way are you a better person now, because of what you regret?”

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