Thursday, February 16, 2017

Can We Live Life Without Regrets?©

Regret gets a bad rap in our modern and excessively “feel good”  “do your own thing” age. It is an age of personal rights without corresponding personal responsibility and accountability. It is an age in which “no child is to be left behind” which has been morphed by do-gooder social engineers into a society of praise and self-esteem junkies who require gold stars on the forehead for every attempt and a good word about every assignment completed. 

A manifestation that is particularly troubling is the attitude many hold about regret. Two sayings–and sayings are especially popular in this sound-bite society that does not want to examine today’s superficial  philosophies too closely–are prevalent. Coaches, teachers, and life coaches shout the mantra “No regrets.” Today this is shorthand for “Give it all you’ve got,” or “leave it all out on the field.” Give every effort, expend every ounce of energy, use all your skills and determination to reach the goal, thus, leaving no reason for regret. You gave it your very best.(1)  In other contexts, parents, teachers, friends, life coaches and arm-chair philosophers may use the phrase to encourage “living life to the fullest.”“Try anything once.”  “Live large.”  “You only go around once,” so don’t die with regrets that you let fear, lack of ambition or self-confidence, or anything else hold you back from anything you desire to do. I suppose this is the positive side of “no regrets,” although, as an aside, I suggest not only the impossibility of trying everything, but also its sheer folly as well.
A second popular phrase today, from my perspective is the negative side, but it is not seen that way by those who invoke it. We often hear it in interviews with celebrities. The reporter asks something like, “At this stage of life do you have any regrets–things you would do differently?” The celeb, often with great self-assurance, parrots the commonly held view, “I have no regrets. If I had my life to live over again I wouldn’t change a thing.” When this comes from those who have hit it big, it is perhaps understandable. With such good fortune, why change their trajectory?  

Sometimes, however, we hear it spoken with an air of arrogance by the rebel, the bad-boy or bad-girl–those who glory in individualism and relish running against the grain, resisting restraints and conventional mores. In the ignorance of arrogance, or should it be the arrogance of ignorance, they think they have, like Frank Sinatra, done it their way and they claim they have no regrets for doing so–notwithstanding substance abuse, rap sheets, sexual license, family conflict, and multiple divorces which are often in their background.

Whenever I hear “I have no regrets, I wouldn’t change a thing,” I find myself saying “Really?”  Really, no regrets? Pardon me for saying so, but I just plain don’t believe it. It is either  an expression of a total lack of introspection and inspection of one’s life, or a monumental insensitivity to the victims of the inevitable mistakes, blunders, failures, and ignorances which accompany everyone’s life. No regrets, really?  

Have they never injured anyone so seriously that it cannot be adequately compensated, redressed, or repaired? Have they never said a harsh, cruel, cutting, mean, sarcastic or abusive thing which cannot be called back, but which they wish with all their heart they could? Have they never made a bad decision in their family, business, among friends, in their neighborhood or community which carried in its wake a disastrous impact which could not be totally repaired? Did they never hold back a helping hand which they later lamented because they realized  they didn’t engage because of selfish reasons, fear, or inconvenience? Have they never judged someone wrongly and their judgment precipitated consequences they could not prevent or later remedy? Have they never had their motives misunderstood so deeply that despite their best efforts it could not be corrected? Have they never wasted time to the extent that important opportunities for growth, progress, productivity, success were irretrievably lost? No. Really? I don’t believe it.  

It is possible I suppose, for one to say he has learned great lessons for which he is grateful without regret. But the attitude which values only the lessons learned and at the same time casually dismisses the real genuine damage and injury that was done, but which was not redressed, is worse than callus, it is chilling. Are they really that proud, insensitive, uncaring, and cold hearted?  

True, chronic regret may stifle, even paralyze. Aldous Huxley was not happy with his first version of Brave New World and apparently let it sit a long while. In the “Foreword” to his 1968 paperback version he wrote:  
Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean. (2)
But I am affirming the merit of regret. William George Gordon says, “The man who looks back upon his past life and says, “I have nothing to regret,” has lived in vain. The life without regret is the life without gain.”  This is true because every life is marred by sin, error, mistakes, and wrong doing.  He continued, 
Regret is but the light of fuller wisdom from our past, illuminating our future. It means that we are wiser today than we were yesterday. This new wisdom means new responsibility, new privileges; it is a new chance for a better life. But if regret remains merely “regret,” it is useless; it must become the revelation of new possibilities, and the inspiration and source of strength to realize them. Even omnipotence could not change the past, but each man, to a degree far beyond his knowing, holds his future in his own hands.(3)
From a religious point of view, regret or remorse is one element in the positive forward moving process of repentance. When sin and error are present in our lives we can ignore and deny them and their consequences; we can become catatonic, wallowing in the muck of regret; or we can be moved into action to correct the mistake and not repeat it. It is all about how one views one’s personal responsibility and the purpose of life. Regret can and should be a catalyst to growth and improvement. It begins with an acknowledgment that one is not perfect, has not lived a perfect life, and has at many points through his life harmed and injured others. The presence of regret suggests one’s sense of personal and social responsibility. It’s absence implies a cold hard-heartedness that as Jordan says, is a life without gain. Regret is also the presence of an opportunity for greater light and wisdom regarding our future interpersonal relationships.

Let’s think together again, soon.


1. This idea is so common it does not need a footnote, however, one example may suffice.  In this one Pat Williams recount’s John Havlicek’s address to his teammates at Indiana University prior to their 1976 basketball championship game.  See, Pat Williams, Secrets from the Mountain (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 2001), pp. 88-89. 

2. Aldos Huxley, “Foreword,” to Brave New World, (Harper & Row, Publishers, September 1968), p. vii.

3. William George Jordan, The Kingship of Self-Control, (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.), pp. 46-47.

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