Thursday, December 15, 2016

Roads Taken and Not

Do you have regrets? By the time we’ve reached our Third Thirds, are there things you regret?

And what is a regret anyway?

This was today’s rambling café conversation. I was describing a lunch of many years ago. An older woman at that table had said she regretted not putting money in her IRA when she was younger and adding to it every year. All the older people at lunch had repeated that same regret, and today’s café table shook their heads in agreement, too.

But then we got to talking about roads not taken. Or wrong roads taken. Yes, I spent a horrible year at Cornell in graduate school, but I came away with some friends-for-life, an awareness of how I really wanted to spend my life, and some inner resources about making things happen.

Basically, then, I tend to believe that if you like where you are, you have to appreciate the bumps and detours that got you there. We don’t have to like them, but we do have to recognize their role in forging our lives to get where we are now in our Third Thirds. Yes, there were probably easier ways to get here, but they didn’t emerge or they wouldn’t have provided all those Valuable Life Lessons.
Is regret something you only feel if you’re inherently constructed that way, some pessimistic orientation? Why do we all know the expression “mired in regret,” usually preceded by “hopelessly”?

Yet I can imagine big, giant regrets that can color a whole life with a sense of “what if.” I think of them as Before and After moments, how your life can change on a dime and your Before life ends, never to be retrieved again. Teenage recklessness figures big here: a car accident, a stupid prank that goes bad, a burst of mischief with terrible consequences. To think of these is to shudder at the thought, at the narrowness of escape and the sheer luck of it all.

What if the guy who picked me up hitchhiking wasn’t a nice guy after all? What if I hadn’t blown out the candle before I left the house one night? So those are Big Regrets that I don’t have … luckily. Parallel universes that never happened … but could have.

Little regrets? They’re more like lost opportunities, unrealized fantasies. I wish I hadn’t dropped out of the Venceremos Brigade to Cuba when I was accepted in 1977. I wish I hadn’t canceled that boat trip down the Seine in France in 1985. But they’re idle wishes, adventures not taken, and other adventures took their place.

We realized we were all talking about regrets from the distant past, as if that’s where regret originated. We couldn’t do anything about them any more. But what about that bag of potato chips we finish in one sitting? Those things we immediately regret? And then we got off on willpower, on delays of gratification. We could have moved on to beating up on ourselves – with regret – but Colleen said, “We’ve learned we do the best we can.”

Nevertheless, I do regret moments of missed kindnesses; times I could have been nicer, more empathetic, more caring. We all do. Is regret guilt? Remorse?

I’m thinking regret is a signal. It’s a sign saying, “Learn from this. Make amends. Do better next time.” Are we motivated by regret? By regret avoidance?

And then I just happened to come across this in a book I’m reading on another topic: “…research has also shown that the regrets about exercising restraint prove much stronger—and can also last much longer—than regrets about yielding to temptation.” Hmmm, what’s to learn from this?


  1. I have fewer regrets that I dwell on as I get older......most are about time. Time I didn't spend with someone I love😞

  2. You last paragraph is key, IMO. I think studies overwhelmingly show that in the SHORT term, people regret the things they DO (not just potato chips, but an unkind remark, gossip, etc). But in the long term, they regret what they DIDN'T do.

    I've never been one for regret and guilt. And I do think there's a genetic component here, as well as a VERY IMPORTANT aspect of parental role modeling - neither of my parents spent much time or energy with either emotion.

    To me, both guilt and regret are the NON--PRODUCTIVE part of ESSENTIAL adult behaviors. The positive aspect of guilt is taking responsibility, while the positive aspect of regret is learning from your mistakes.

    In my experience, most of the people who wallow in regret and/or guilt have no interest in actually changing their behaviors. They seem to have an attitude, "I feel really bad about it, so I can just keep doing the same thing over and over again."

    To me, that's why healthy and mature people mostly let go of these emotions as they age. They have internalized the "Serenity Prayer" – they continue to change what they can, accept what they can't, and are wise about where to draw the line.


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