On Living With Regret

I’m going to be honest with you guys; I’ve never truly understood the whole “no regrets” life philosophy. I imagine it being spouted by the same people who say, “You only live once, right?” (a phrase so popular it’s been abbreviated for faster usage: YOLO).

In other words, you have some huge life decision to make and one of the choices is a little crazy. Maybe even a choice that will hurt someone you love, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so you say YOLO and go for it. And even if it doesn’t work out, you stand by your choice, because you want to live a life of no regrets.

That might not be what people actually mean when they say these things, but it’s certainly what I imagine. Doesn’t “you only live once” seem sort of like a free pass for being a jerk and/or making questionable decisions? That’s just not how I roll.

And it’s not even how I want to live. Judy Clement Wall blogged about that here, and she said it well. Long story short: if you care about your life and the people in it, and you’re human and therefore susceptible to making mistakes, how you could you possibly live a life with no regrets?

I have regrets.

Some of them are small but persistent, like using careless wording online or waiting too long to catch up with an old friend. Others are more substantial, like hurting someone I love — saying or doing things that I can’t take back.

In fact, for my own personal consumption, I just made a list of the biggest regrets that still haunt me. Almost every single one of them is a person’s name.

There are mistakes I’ve made that fill me with regret like cold rain that will never be warmed. I can’t un-make them, and that kills me. I hate knowing that someone I love carries around hurt because of me. I hate it.

They say we should forgive ourselves as readily as we forgive other people, and I guess I’m just not very good at that. A lot of (all of?) the people on my list have hurt me too, but I don’t carry that around nearly the way I do my own regret. Some of the people on my list have been apologized to, and others are long-gone. Strangely, I don’t feel much of a difference between those I’ve spoken to and those I haven’t.

So how do we live with the bad choices we’ve made?

Not thinking about them helps, but sometimes the ghosts start groaning and can’t be ignored. Asking for a person’s forgiveness sometimes helps, but often a regret is too old or too seemingly trivial to be dredged up. Time helps, but even the oldest regrets stick with me. I still feel bad for the one time I cheated on a test back in second grade, as silly as that may sound. As if me as an adult has any power over what second-grade me did. But still, I wish I wouldn’t have done it.

I don’t have the answer. Maybe some people are better at self-forgiveness than I am. Maybe it comes down to loving ourselves as much as we love others, and knowing that we, too, are human and liable to make mistakes. Maybe the wisest of us can massage regrets away.

Or maybe regret is something that we all need to keep. Maybe living with regret is our way of remembering the lessons we learned in making the wrong choices. The pain and sorrow we feel about one decision is there to remind us of the possible outcomes of the next decision. Maybe each mistake haunts us so we remember not to make it again.

What do you think? Do you live a life of no regrets? Do you think that’s something worth striving for?

And if not, how do you live with your regret?

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