Regret is a fascinating phenomenon. It might even be its very own emotion, come to think of it. It can be an overwhelming, body-tingling, almighty sensation, leaving us hollowed out like a tree trunk full of termites. I think that if I were to think about all of the things I could regret, I would probably be non-functional for a few years, just staring blankly into space, going over everything I’ve ever done wrong – accidentally or intentionally.
It’s likely that most of us have a lot of experience with things we shouldn’t have done or could have handled better, and that’s part of the human condition. Unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to “save” our progress and undo our mistakes of we realise later on that we did the wrong thing. We just have to live with it, regardless.
Of course, I, as well as most, have made mistakes. Many more than I even remember, and that’s already quite a lot. I don’t think that I am particularly unique in that sense, as some people’s regrets drive them to extraordinary measures. Some people kill themselves because of it. Some people just cease to function in the same way, and there’s always some background feeling of drowning which can only be quietened, but never dismissed, like a tinnitus of the soul.
My Philosophy with regards to regret started when I was rather young, I seem to recall. I argued: “If there’s no changing what has happened, and it’s impossible to take back, why bother with it?” It’s been my approach to this feeling ever since. To further my point, I argued that if things had happened differently, everything could always have been worse. I’m sure many people have already heard or read about thought experiments involving people like Hitler and things along the lines of “Would you save a baby from drowning if you could?” and if the answer was affirmative, as one might expect, they get struck by the phrase “but wHaT iF iT wAs HiTlEr?” which seems to imply that we should never try to save anyone in case they eventually become bad people. It’s a bit of a silly thought experiment really, because one might counter that point with supposing that the fact nobody tried to help this person made them become a tad bitter and subsequently genocidal.
The point is that we cannot know what might have happened if things turned out differently, or rather, if one single act had happened differently. The Chaos Theory involved is fairly clear on that. If you hadn’t climbed a tree and fallen and broken your leg, you may never have gone to the hospital where you were treated, never became inspired to become a nurse, never helped treat the future saviour of the World and so on and so on. However, maybe you never broke your leg which made you less fearful and risk-averse, so you bought a lottery ticket and won a bazillion Canadian dollars/Euros/GBP/(whichever currency you prefer).
That is the basic idea; had things gone differently, you might have never helped save the world, but you could also have been super-duper rich. Who would be able to tell you? Absolutely no one. Thus, it makes sense that, as long as you are at least slightly content with how your life is going, regret is foolish, because things could be far, far worse. This is what I’ve thought for an incredibly long time, and I’ve never really had to deal with remorse all that much. It’s like some kind of forcefield: just remember that no matter how badly you mess up, it could always be worse. Getting fired from your job for some reason might save your life if there’s some kind of accident which might have taken place there, but it could also have killed you if the depression, alcoholism and bankruptcy takes you out quickly. The “what-could-have-been” is purely fantasy, and it’s important to hold onto that idea. It never happened any other way. It was never going to happen any other way. Unfortunately the past is fixed, and, if you are inclined towards a deterministic approach, no other outcome was ever possible. So relax.
With that said, of course, one might wonder whether it’s suitable to live in a way which completely ignores past mistakes with no cares in the World. Everything that goes wrong was always bound to go wrong, so what’s the point? Just live remorselessly, right?
And no, of course not, you fool.
Allow me to elaborate:
If you choose to never learn from your mistakes – an all-too common practice – then you might repeat the same mistakes. Now, Chaos theory, blah-blah-blah, sure. But if you want to improve your chances of not living a miserable existence, then you might want to try to avoid making mistakes, acting in an unsuitable or counterproductive way and generally narrowing your window of happiness. If we accept that the future is determined and cannot change, then we can resign ourselves to the position of passive observer. The issue here is that we do not know what it is that has been determined. So we are blind to what the future has in store, and by extension, we are not entirely passive. We are only passive in retrospect, however when we look to the present and to the future, we are not.
It’s a bit confusing, but simply put; once a thing is done, it could not have ever happened differently, but if something is still to come, anything could happen until the moment that it does. Therefore, we can still act to increase the chance that we will be successful, wealthy, slightly happier, etc… One way to do that is to look at those things we regret and see where we could have done something differently, or rather, if the same thing is to happen again, how we could react differently in the future, or apply such principles to other areas of our lives in which similar or relevant events and scenarios may arise.
Even though Chaos Theory makes the future unpredictable, we can still act in ways that are more likely to end up being good for us; we can eat better, become more productive, try not to say things in anger and all the rest. Then, even though misery and pain are ubiquitous and inevitable, we have more chance of dodging some of it. Moreover, it seems that misery is often self-inflicted, and I don’t think that there’s a single cause more efficient at causing misery than looking back wondering what could have been if only you were a bit better.
A common regret is “I should have been braver” or “I should have said what I truly thought at that moment,” and even though you won’t get to replay that event, you can still try and act in that way next time you ask for a raise or when you feel you’re being pushed around or whatever may apply. IT doesn’t have to be quite so dramatic, simply getting a speeding ticket is pretty bad, and we can try to slow down and drive better in future. It’s the whole point of speed cameras, one could argue; learn from this mistake.
In any case, even though we don’t have to dwell on the past in the emotional sense, because what’s done is done, we can still take mistakes that we make and try to change for the better. Eventually, you won’t have to waste as much time dwelling on your mistakes, because you might handle everything to the best of your abilities. What is there to regret then? Not training your abilities enough? At some point, we just make fewer drastic errors, and that, in essence, is a good thing for us collectively and as individuals. If you ever get that feeling of regret, try and pick it apart and – it sounds very simple – try and do better next time.
If it is so simple, why are we not perfect by now? Surely it’s such a simple concept, one would have thought that humans would be ideal machines, able to deal with situations perfectly, or at least to the best of one’s abilities. Yes, well, we aren’t very good at this sort of thing, generally. We’re stubborn, we don’t like to change ourselves (especially not for the better), and we seem to really like to be punished emotionally when that punishment is ours to dish out. Like BDSM of the soul. But alone.
Generally, being stubborn means that if anyone comes and tells us to do something differently, we resist it. If you’ve ever had the same job for several years and some new guy comes into a higher position than you, he or she might tell you to do something differently. Better, maybe. Oh, boy. Just who do they think they are? Telling you how to do the thing you’ve been doing for three whole years. You’ll show them. Just keep doing it the way you always have. Yes, this will definitely be productive in sorting out your problem. The problem of trying something new, listening to someone else and – Heaven forfend – changing something. Alas, without even thinking about it, we are reluctant to change, whether someone else be telling us useful information, or whether it is in our own minds. We are rigid sometimes. Imagine just changing like that, all of a sudden. Crazy, right? Well, what’s stopping you from changing? What is preventing you from becoming someone else. Not as in identity theft, but in the sense of changing your personality, either slightly or drastically, in order to be more like the person you want to be.
As I have mentioned several times before, the main obstacle to your development is you. That stubborn part of your brain which doesn’t want to budge, even thought the rest of your mind is screaming at you to be different, yelling that the way you are is unsustainable, it can’t ever work, and so forth, your ego is the only member of your mind-council with the ability to veto. You need to work pretty darn hard in order to convince it to let something new happen, and that is often scary. So add fear to stubbornness. Then add the comfort of continuation, a momentum of the soul, if you will, and you have a fearsome Cerberus to battle. There is only one way forwards, and that is to simply accept that things are difficult, and you will have to confront part of yourself if you truly want to change. Like David and Goliath, sometimes all you have to do is confront the enemy, and that is half of the battle.
In summary, the future is predetermined but you determine that future by your actions, try not to get too emotional over the past unless you want to punish yourself (an entirely different subject), try and analyse why you feel as though things could have gone better and implement them whenever a similar occurrence arises. And that, I can guarantee, is much more easily said than done. Nothing is impossible though. Just be open to change. Sometimes, we just need to say sorry.