If you ask me whether there’s a duty to mitigate your own regret,
I will tell you this.
It’s happened many times, but most recently it was just a few days ago: someone told me, unsolicited, “don’t do it” regarding a relatively permanent endeavor I’m planning on taking. It’s nothing life ending or even altering (at least to me), but it will be something quite difficult to reverse down the road. The suggestion was well-intentioned, but it didn’t sway me in the least. I am very certain about my mind being made up.
Yet it got me thinking: do we have a duty to ourselves to mitigate all possibility of regret? And if we do, how much or what caliber of regret? To me, that line seems elusive if not claustrophobic depending on where it’s placed or how often we are expected to take the least regretful path.
Plus, it’s boring. It renders life sanitized and rote. It obscures the person you are in that very moment.
For sure, I think there is some level of responsibility that we each must take for our capacity or tolerance for living with regret. No one wants to hear you lament about a very poor choice you made because you didn’t think twice. Indeed, there are plenty of decisions that should be made with intention and a clear mind. But it’s a multi-faceted equation that goes beyond “could I possibly be remorseful with this decision x days/years from now?” You could always answer that question in the affirmative because who really knows, right?
Certain considerations should be taken into account, like whether someone else will also be affected or whether it will result in irrevocably harmful outcomes. It’s one thing to dye your hair neon green (it will grow out) or quit a job (you can find another one) because these things, though bold in some cases, are not necessarily permanent. It’s quite another to start smoking or drive 100 miles per hour after three cocktails. Those kinds of decisions can end very badly, and irreversibly so.
Yet a lot of the decisions you have yet to make in your life are in that middle place. The kinds of decisions where regret might not surface, if at all, until well down the road. The kinds of decisions where the full range of inherent risk (of harm, of irrevocability, of regret itself) is unclear at the outset. Whether to end a relationship because it protects your heart more adequately. Whether to start a new one. Whether to tell someone how you really feel with unabashed honesty and forthrightness. Whether to make a complete or unexpected life shift academically, professionally, or personally. For these kinds of decisions I suggest you lead with your heart. I think you will regret those decisions the least, if at all, because you made them in a moment when you were being truest to that version of yourself.
Yes, each of us can always find lessons learned and different kinds of happiness no matter which decisions we make. That is not what this is about. What I am talking about is the notion of stopping yourself from the possibility—whether it be remote or probable—of making a wrong, regrettable choice in those grey areas.
I’m just a few days into 42 years old. I’ve done a lot of the major decision making of my lifetime already. I think that’s why I was a little puzzled by the unsolicited advice I’d received. It had me wondering about the judgement, perceived incompetence, or our own insecurities we unfairly project onto others.
But you? You’re eight. That road of decisions and its concomitant potholes of remorse still stretches out before you unseen into the horizon. You will undoubtedly make some regrettable decisions in your life. We all do. I could sit here and tell you the kinds of regrets I do have, though strangely enough there are not too many. Perhaps it’s a function of my low tolerance for novelty and the amount of lead time I give myself for deliberating the big decisions, like who to marry or whether to have children.
That might not be who you are. My decisions and regrets are not some kind of map I can (or should) hand down to you. You might like a lot more excitement and new adventures. You might be able to make decisions on the fly. You might have more of them to make. You are also growing up in an era where your choices are more easily fodder for others to consume and disseminate.
And so my best advice is this: make enough decisions that present you with at least an inkling of possible regret, honor that possibility, and then go for it regardless. Let your heart hold the map and follow where it goes. Then, when you someday reflect upon those choices and decisions, think fondly of that girl or woman. You will know she lived with her heart leading the way. There is no regret in that.
Copyright (c) 2016 Kristen M. Ploetz
It is always interesting (and often amusing) to watch M learn how to navigate a new type of emotion as she gets older. Recently, M has been tasting the bittersweet flavor of regret.
From a three year old’s vantage point, there are some serious hard feelings when she’s discovered that the opportunity to take part in a craft at preschool is fleeting, and if she does not seize the moment, it will be lost in the glitter glue of time. Seeing the finished craft in her friends’ bins at the end of the day when I pick her up, she quickly realizes there is nothing in her bin to show me because she decided just four hours ago to get lost in the sand table instead. A flood of tears ensues. She has learned that there are unfortunate consequences to not getting dressed to play outside if she chooses instead to dawdle at the coloring table and play kitchen, despite several reminders from loving adults that the children will be playing outside for only 30 minutes and if she does not get dressed in time, she will miss the chance to make a snowman with them. While I am sure she enjoyed playing kitchen with the “indoor” friends, there was much distress when she decided at the very moment the “outside” friends were stumbling inside that, no, in fact she did want to make a snowman after all.
With regret, it usually comes down to a path taken or not taken. When you’re three, you want to travel them all because they all seem exciting and full of possibility. Yet it’s a hard lesson to learn that it’s virtually impossible to stop time and space to accomplish everything at once. So you start to learn about regret if you ultimately find you didn’t end up as happy with the path chosen. Or at least it seems that way when stopping for a moment to realize the consequences of the choices made.
The first emotions experienced by all of us are large and general. Happiness. Sadness. They are also usually controlled by the things that others do (tickling, cuddling, feeding) or don’t do (forgetting to change a diaper, leaving the room momentarily) for us.
Then comes frustration, disappointment and sometimes, anger. At a very young age, these are usually brought about by things that one cannot control, and they are not always dependent on someone else being involved (physical or developmental limits, having to take turns, being told no by an adult).
But regret seems like an extraordinarily adult emotion to me. And yet I see that M is already starting to experience these types of nuanced grown-up emotions. Emotions that make us human and separate us from other living beings because they are often rooted in conscious (and maybe unconscious) deliberate personal choice. The bittersweet feeling that she is experiencing through regret, I imagine, is largely because she is slowly realizing that it was her alone that controlled the outcome of the situation at hand (her and the limits of physics). No one else to blame for dawdling. No one else to blame for hunkering down with a pile of crayons and a fresh sheet of paper instead of cold wet snow. She is becoming aware that she is increasingly growing independent from her parents–whether she wants to or not–and more in control of her world than she probably wants to be.
As adults, we too experience regret, but we usually have a way of forging ahead even in the face of obvious wrong choices. “No regrets!” is a mantra for many, probably because it is understood that, at minimum, there will at least be a lesson learned or some serendipitous outcome that otherwise would not have been unearthed if the other “right” path was chosen. Perhaps too it is easier to cope with regret as adults because we realize–often well past the moment in time that a particular choice was made–that there are very few choices that are either truly heinous or cannot be unraveled in some slight way. And that it is futile to play Monday morning quarterback for those decisions that are ultimately irreversible.
We can also rationalize our decisions, especially over long periods of time as the lens of focus aimed at the net result becomes clearer, more defined. We are able to reason with ourselves that the choices we made were the right ones at that given moment in time, even if we later play the useless game of “what if”. I bet that the reasoning and rationalization that often informs regret will not take place for some time for young M. This is why her regret will continue to be reduced to tears for a while to come.
In the meantime, I will be there to find the silver linings and remind her that while she did not make a snowman that day, she got to stay dry and warm and have the play kitchen all to herself with her best preschool pal. It is hard not to smile to myself when I see her get visibly upset when she has realized she did not make the choice she later wished she had, not because I think it’s funny, but because it is the first glimmer of the independent and accountable adult she will one day become.
Copyright (c) 2011-2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz. All rights reserved.
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