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November 26th, 2018
It’s on bumper stickers, it’s tattooed on bodies, it’s hashtagged and shouted to the heavens, adorning t-shirts and digital profiles.
Such a declaration is worn with a self-righteous pride so strong that it harks of a kind of desperation, for a certain identity - for certainty, plain and simple.
There is an insidious thread of poison that runs through such a belief.
In order to untwist the concept and take a look at it flattened and spread against the firing wall of our mind, we’d do well to start by properly defining the main word, regret.
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines regret as “feeling sad, repentant, or disappointed over (something that has happened or been done, especially a loss or missed opportunity).
To truly live without regrets would be to live without the ability to feel sad, repentant or disappointed. This is frankly ridiculous, and somewhat psychopathic.
Another way of phrasing this is to evince the connection between the meaning of regret and the word mistake.
To live without regrets also translates to living without ever having made a mistake, which is either impossible or the result of deluding one’s self to a truly magnificent level.
For example we can look back on a mistake that was a fairly benign missed opportunity, like selling a stock instead of holding on to it. If the stock rises, we can view the chance to hold on to our stake in the company as a missed opportunity. All forking paths that pinpoint the instances in life where we make and act upon a decision could ultimately be seen through the lens of this framework.
Often this sort of logic is combated with quaint phrases such as “it all worked out anyway.” So there’s nothing to regret.
But this is a haphazard attempt at logic. The problem is with the initial condition of desiring the state of no regrets. Everything else gets rationalized in some way to fit a false original condition in this kind of belief system.
Rectification requires loosening up with this concept of regret. This may in turn require examining ideas and feeling of shame which might accompany such an admission. But such a difficult exercise may ultimately be tempered by tying the notion of regret a little closer to the idea of a mistake.
We all make mistakes. This statement is paradoxically and laughably stated just as often as the ‘no regrets’ slogan, and yet their coexistence in someone’s belief system does seem to smack of a contradiction. We all make mistakes, in the cultural milieu appears to come from a somewhat vulnerable and defeated space. It may not have the darkly lit pall of dwelling on the past that the word regret seems to carry as evidenced by the concept’s flat out denial in psychological life (or at least the vocal and loudly pronounced part of that psychological life), but the statement we all make mistakes, does not seem to carry anything more than limp sympathy, unfortunately.
Those feelings of sadness, disappointment, and repentance, while uncomfortable, are very useful, so long as they don’t become a habitual mainstay of a dwelling mindset. Those uncomfortable negative feelings arise to tell us something about our choice in the past. The feeling is indicating that it probably would have been better to do something other than what we choose. And that’s a very good mechanism. It helps prep us for future situations that might seem eerily similar. When reality starts shaping up into a form that we’ve already experienced, those feelings of sadness and disappointment, or happiness and verve help us navigate a like situation in a wiser way.
How much would this framework suffer if we were to deny ourselves the experience of regret? And yet this framework is exactly how our intuition is compiled. Intuition is in essence a sort of truth-telling mood ring, that only pings us with emotions to give us hints about what might be the better decision. We can imagine this instrument being poorly calibrated or really fine-tuned to reality. How would having no regrets effect this decision-making apparatus? Trying to accomplish this is akin to leaving out half the ingredients while trying some new recipe – it’s incomplete, which appropriately enough makes us more likely to make another bad call because we denied our intuition the chance to grow from a regret.
The precious concept of identity in general seems to be constructing an evermore-rickety tower on which to flee all sorts of dangers that might challenge it. The hope that an identity might somehow make itself invincible by eradicating or neutering all potential dangers and challenges seems to be at the heart of the symptomatic declaration of having ‘no regrets’.
Simply put, the slogan ‘No Regrets’ is the pinnacle of narcissism. Implying that such a person has nothing to learn, feels no sadness, no repentance, no disappointment, nor the ability to interpret any part of their past as a missed opportunity. Could any sort of identity predicated by this notion be anything but self-absorbed and fragile?
What such a flimsy goal fails to take into consideration is the huge benefit that comes from damage and mistakes. Just as a muscle that has been challenged with a difficult workout actually overreacts to the stress and rebuilds itself so that it can withstand more stress than what it actually encountered, so too would our sense of being benefit by opening up our concepts of identity and who we like to think we are to worthy challenges and potential damage.
It could be a mistake, one that we could even learn from.
But, if we’re already living with no regrets, where’s the harm in trying if we’re just going to ignore the outcome anyway?
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