Do you have regrets?
Sometimes that which does not kill us doesn’t make us stronger. Sometimes it breaks us.
And bad mistakes
I’ve made a few
There’s this thing we’ve all learned to say:
I have no regrets.
And we mean it. I know an incredible number of smart, wonderful people for whom this is a mantra, and they’re sincere. They look at the blunders, the missteps, the mistakes everyone saw coming a mile away, the catastrophes, and they say “I wouldn’t change a thing.” Our mistakes make us who we are, they say, and if I regret, then that means I’m unhappy with who I am. To regret is to reject one’s experience, one’s learned life lessons, one’s wisdom – the essence of one’s very self, in fact. Regret and self-acceptance are, in this view, incompatible.
Many people think like this. Hell, I thought like this. I’m quoting myself circa 2005 here. I meant it, just as so many of my close friends do.
Here’s the thing: it isn’t true. Not for me, anyway. Not anymore, if it ever really was. I try not to tell others what to think or believe, especially when they’ve proven themselves more than capable of managing their own lives (this is doubly true when they’ve proven themselves capable of managing their lives better than I have). But I have regrets. Big ones.
I’ll apologize in advance for the impending confessional. It may be hard to read, particularly for those who know and love me. I’ll do my best not to implicate the innocent, although, again, friends and family are going to recognize people and events they know well.
The “no regrets” school of thought is related to that old adage – that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. There’s a lot of truth in this, too. We learn from adversity. If we pay attention, failure provides lessons we can use in our quest for success. We can learn from our mistakes and if we’re careful not to repeat them we can spare ourselves a good deal of pain and humiliation.
I’ve failed plenty, and like most of you, I have learned from those mistakes. (Maybe not the first time, but eventually.) I can walk you through the timeline of my life and point out any number of times where I messed up, and badly, and then can fast forward and show you how that lesson helped me later on.
Like you, probably, I have scars I wear proudly. I’m a better man for the failures, and in those cases I have no regrets.
But that isn’t the whole story. Failures are like car accidents. Some of them leave a scratch on the chrome, and we walk away remembering to look both ways before turning. Some are a little worse. They might total the car, but aside from a few bumps and bruises we escape okay. Shaken, maybe a little nervous next time we crawl behind the wheel, but fine in the grand scheme of things. We certainly wish we’d avoided these crashes, but they’re hardly the stuff of lifelong regret.
Then there are the serious ones, where we’re hurt badly. Not fatally, but enough that a few years of our lives flashed before our eyes while the car was spinning toward the guardrail. We recover, but we remember the time in the hospital. We remember the agony of rehab. We carry the scars forever.
These are the watershed moments for those who espouse the “no regret” motto. It didn’t kill me. It’s part of who I am. I recovered. I’m stronger for having survived the experience.
Sometimes, though, we don’t recover. Sometimes we sustain permanent trauma. We lose limbs. We lose organs. People die. And make no mistake, the soul is like the body. There’s damage that heals, and there’s damage that does not. There are crashes that hurt us, but surgery and a few months of physical therapy have us back on our feet. There are also crashes that cripple us for the remainder of our lives.
As I say above, I’ve been in wrecks I don’t regret. Sure, they sucked and they hurt and all things considered it would have been okay had they not happened, but still, I’m stronger for having survived. I’ve also been in crashes that cost me limbs and organs, pileups that didn’t respond fully to treatment. I cannot possibly look you in the eye and tell you I’m better for the experience. Yes, I learned. Yes, I survived. But that which did not kill me did not make me stronger. When all was said and done I was weakened. I was less than I had been before.
I can certainly talk about my failed marriage. I failed in more ways than I can count and I have no honest expectation that I’ll ever fully recover all the self I lost. All I surrendered unknowingly. Then there was the thing that happened after it ended. The marriage and divorce left me for dead by the road. Then she came along, rolled me over and stomped me in the face a few more times for good measure.
Do I have regrets about that lost decade of my life? You bet.
A number of years ago another woman – the one that got away – came to me and asked if we could finally give it a go. We had taken turns being the cause of bad timing for so long, and maybe now was the moment. But I was committed to my fiancée. I said no. I now know that was a mistake, and am not comforted by the fact that I did it for what I thought were the right reasons.
You might, at this point, be thinking sure, but there was no guarantee it would have worked out, and you’re right. For all I know, had I ducked the marriage, and all the other trainwrecks that have shaped so much of my life, something even worse could have happened. All we know, looking back, is this. Option A was a complete failure. Option B had a chance, albeit undefined, of working out. You always bet “maybe” over “no chance in hell.” If you don’t buy this line of thinking, fine, but never, ever do I want to hear a word from you about hope. Option B is the definition of hope, and you can’t have it both ways.
The tricky part of this equation, from the perspective of Fall 2017, is that yes, I deeply regret how much the wrong answer that afternoon in 2002 cost me over the following decade. But now I’m now very happily involved with an incredible woman, and I don’t regret that in the least. It is, without question, the best relationship of my life. I do wonder, though. The marriage left parts of me lying by the road, parts that couldn’t be sewn back on. As I said before, I am less for it. I often wish I were more than I am for my girlfriend, who truly deserves the best possible me. I regret the things which have perhaps lessened her joy with me, even a little bit.
Right now, some of you are bouncing up and down, wanting to shake me and say “but that’s just it! You’re happy now! And you got here by that terrible road you think you regret!” We can’t know, though, and what you say is a simple statement of faith. At some point you might well have told me to keep trying because the right person is out there and I was fated to find her. (Some of you did say that, and in those exact words.) If so, I’d have found my girlfriend anyway, and I’d be less damaged for her, right?
I’ve been carrying this post around inside for a long time. I finally decided to write it down and publish it because in recent years I’ve been pressed to justify what some perceive as undue negativity. The people I hear it from aren’t being bitchy or judgmental – they care for me and want me to be happy, and I’m grateful to have folks like that in my life.
Truth is, I’m actually not nearly as cynical as some think – I’m capable of maintaining a determined, go-get-’em attitude while at the same time being fully cognizant when the odds are against me. While I wouldn’t describe myself as innately happy, it’s also true that I’m prone to fits of wonderment and joy. I love photography. I love it when I write something that connects with a reader. I love reading and I laugh like a four year-old at great comedy. I’m compelled by artistic brilliance. As my friends in the Rocky Mountain Blues can testify, I can get downright giddy about my beloved Chelsea FC. I sometimes smile at what’s running through my head, and if you caught me unawares you’d probably think me flat-out simple.
All that, but yes, I’m a man with regrets. I am a product of my mistakes and of the blindsides life has visited on me (like my recent career follies). However, they have not all made me better.
Sometimes that which does not kill us doesn’t make us stronger. Sometimes it leaves us broken. This isn’t an excuse to give up, to wallow in self-pity, to roll over and die. But perhaps it does suggest that it’s okay to acknowledge the reality of regret and the simple fact that sometimes life builds us up while others it beats us down.
As always, this is only partly about me. The truth is – and I fully understand this – I have it a damned sight better than a lot of people do. I try and keep some perspective about me.
And yeah, there are folks who are just negative. There’s nothing that could ever make them happy. Some of our fellow travelers are just miserable and they like it that way.
Others, though, others are down for valid reasons. Some people are broken, perhaps beyond repair. For them, I imagine, the idea of having no regrets is, at best, going to ring a bit hollow.
I have regrets, and I don’t trust anyone who says they don’t.
I empathize. For years I said it, too, and I think it’s more a coping mechanism. Or was for me. It was something I needed to believe, for reasons I didn’t recognize then but do now. So have no ill will for those who do think that way – and in fact I hope they actually DO have no regrets, because I suspect that’s a better path to happiness than the one I’m on. But I do suspect that in most cases there are some self-awareness hide-and-seek games going on inside.
I agree with your main point, but not with your logic.
Of course we all have regrets. Whether those are reasonable or not is another matter. Yes, I decided to study engineering in Georgia instead of moving to NYC and trying to become a writer. Was that a mistake? Maybe. Maybe not. Yes, I got married, had kids, took jobs that turned out badly, fired my agent based on a promise from another agent–who lied, etc, etc.
However, we all say “no regrets” anyway. I’d argue for four reasons.
1. Because we’re grown ups. We all know that we can spin an alternate non-history any way we like. “If I hadn’t gone to work yesterday maybe I’d have found a lottery ticket on the street and won a billion bucks. Boy, do I regret going to work.”
2. Because talking about regrets inevitably morphs into whining, and whining is irritating and ugly. Admittedly, there are folks who LOVE whining–just check out Oprah and all those afternoon talk shows, but it ain’t me babe. No, no, no it ain’t me babe. I don’t want to be around anyone who whines or even anyone who is willing to listen to me whine.
3. Because the truth is I have faith that most of the time I made the best decision possible at the time with the information available to me. It might have been a bad decision, but given the circumstances, it was the best I could do. (The explanation for how I came to this conclusion is long and boring, but I think it’s mostly true.)
4. And most importantly, whining doesn’t help. All it does is feed the despair cycle and spin you further down. As Billy said, “Oh that way madness lies.”
At least for me, Nietzsche has nothing to do with it.
Je ne regretted rien, bro.
#3 is the crux of it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made the best decision I could given the info and it didn’t work out. I regret those, but it’s a misdemeanor regret, like wishing you’d had the chicken instead of the fish.
The issue for me usually revolves around cases where I had enough info to make the right call and fucked it up anyway. The one I talk about in the post is a prime example. At the time the one that got away made her proposition I knew, beyond all doubt, that I was making a mistake and somehow I lacked what it took to make the break.
I try not to whine. I mean, I worked very hard so that this post wouldn’t sound whiny. But I imagine there’s not much way to make this argument without it seeming that way to some people.
That’s just not possible. It’s inconcievable that anyone would deliberately make a bad decision that they knew was bad at the time. That you think you did just means you’ve forgotten some of the factors involved in the decision. Risky? Yes. 50-50? Yes. Deliberately bad? Uh uh. You rationale at the time had to be that it was best choice available
And here you’re just wrong. I’m not saying it was rational. On the contrary, I’m saying I was an idiot. Maybe I felt like it was too late to get out. I don’t know. Regardless, I can say without any doubt that some of my regrets involve cases where I had all the info I needed to get it right and I didn’t.
A wholehearted “Yes” from me on all of this. My regret, the time life beat me was a first marriage too. Did I learn some things from that experience? Sure. Did I lose a lot of things? Yes. I regret the loss of 10 years of my youth – all the things I could have done. And you’re right in the comment above – this was a case where I had all the info I needed to get it right – or at least try a different path – and I didn’t act on any of it.
I’m in a loving and supportive second marriage now but I don’t for a second NOT regret that first marriage.