Imagine a world in which we could own a personal insurance policy that protected us from regret…
“If only I had arrived five minutes earlier…”
“If only I had bought real estate back when…”
“If only I had said “I love you.”
Ah, regret – that feeling when you wish you’d done something differently than what you actually did or didn’t do. This experience can seem a lot like being locked in a personal screening room where scenes from your life, roads not taken, lapses of honor, moments of decision or indecision play over and over in an infinite loop. Because regret implies that we are at fault for some action or inaction, each time the film starts rolling again, we are reminded of the blunder and feel the pain once more. “Turn it off!” we scream to the projectionist….but the projectionist is you.
Well, sit tight, help is on the way: I’m here to sell you No Regret Insurance.
But–first the fine print. There are some things that no insurance policy can cover: There will always be grief for what has been irretrievably lost, remorse for the shameful or hurtful acts of the past, and pain surrounding the non-negotiable bounds of our mortality. These things cannot be covered because we cannot change the past or perfectly predict the consequences of our actions in the future. However, there are regrets and then there are regrets. Some are inevitable as a part of the cost of living, and some are gratuitous…
Regret def. “to look back with distress or sorrowful longing; to grieve for, on remembering.” Late 14c., from Old Norse grata “to weep, groan” + prefix re- “again.” Re-gret: to groan or weep, again.
Recently I was back in my hometown of Atlanta, driving fifty miles north to attend a conference. The radio informed me there was danger of a “tornado touchdown” in the towns around me, but I was assured, not along my route. Thirty minutes into my fifty minute ride, it began to rain, hail, then my phone bleeped loudly and repeatedly “Emergency Alert: Tornado Warning in this area until 3:30 pm. Take shelter now.” I was in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I was not going anywhere. As the rain and hail pounded harder, after belting out the lyrics to Toto’s “Africa,” I asked myself, “What if it all ended now?”
In the book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware, recorded the most common epiphanies from patients in the last twelve weeks of their lives:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard (at the expense of my loved ones).
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Couldn’t we simply learn from these death bed confessions and apply the wisdom to our lives? If only…
Reality teaches us that every day we must make choices and these choices have consequences. We can strive to make decisions through the lens of what matters most to us, yet there are times, inevitably, when we just don’t get it right the first time. Because in the moment of decision we didn’t have the wisdom, health or clarity of values to make what we later perceive to have been the optimal choice. And some choices were never ours to make.
It’s natural to put the image of the path not taken on a pedestal – we imagine that, had it gone the other way, things would have turned out happily ever after–at least better than the way they are now. Because the upshot of the other path is unknowable, our imaginations can run wild, easily envisioning the alternate route as the one of greater opportunity. When fantasy-land takes over, we forget about the ways we’ve benefited from having taken the original path: the people in our lives who might not have been there and all that we’ve learned.
In What We Regret Most … and Why, I was surprised to learn that “the domains in life that contain people’s biggest regrets are those marked by the greatest opportunity for corrective action.” That’s right, the ones that hurt the most are the ones we can still do something about.
Counterintuitive, no? In order to decrease the discomfort of the conflicting mental messages (‘I want to go back to school/It’s too late to go back to school’) we invent reasons why we’re not doing the things the little voice inside says we should do. We conceive “it’s too late,” “too expensive,” “I don’t have the time.” This could be one reason why the number one regret of Americans relates to education. With technological advances and flexible, online, free learning options, education is more accessible than ever. Yet, it remains first on the list of regrets.
So where does this leave us? Some time is behind us, and some time is ahead, with every day that goes by the balance moving steadily in one direction. How do we deal with regret?
Harness Regret for Revolution, Not Retribution
Regret is an electric emotion. It can be harnessed as a revolutionary springboard, an engine which drives us forward to do better, be better in the future. Or, it can launch us backward to that private torture chamber, hijacking headspace and shackling us to the injuries of the past. If we live there long enough, this chamber becomes our permanent residence and regret becomes the shield and sword we use to defend our personal deficits. “I could have been a contender–if only…”
Convert Past Regret into Wisdom
As the fine print warned, regret attached to the past can’t be insured or expunged completely – but it can be lessened with time, understood in perspective and converted into hard won wisdom for the future.
The Greek playwright Aeschylus captured this for all time:
And even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair, and against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
One of my own regrets, I’ll tell you frankly, is that I did not attend my grandmother’s funeral–and I loved my grandmother. I had a reason for not attending, but it was not a good one. I have felt pain about this, and that pain has reinforced a new wisdom in my life: in relationships that I value, I will “show up;” I will act on my respect and love for others. Instead of groaning again, I choose to grow.
We can never bring back the actual objects, people or places as they were in the past, because they no longer exist. What does exist are the people, places and opportunities of today.
Buy No Regret Insurance for the Future
So for the regrets attached to the future, concerning the things we’ve always wanted to do but have never done, we’re in luck. There’s insurance for that. But–the policy fine print continues–benefits are only available to those who convert regret into wisdom in the present. Wisdom comes when we have the courage to ask: “If it all were to end today, what would I regret the most? What did I not get to do? Be? What am I doing about it?”
No Regret Insurance does not cost money, but there is a price. It requires that you take all the frustration, anger, pain and suffering of regret, and use that energy as fuel to fund the future. Use it to scope out and sculpt possibilities.
Remember: only the past is unchangeable. The future is alive and unformed, influenced by your actions in the present. So, if you’re ready to turn regret into reset, buy some No Regret Insurance: a policy you give to yourself, that pays dividends on the use of your time here and now.
This post appeared here in Psychology Today.