When I was 22, I promised myself I’d live with no regrets. This seemed like a good idea at the time—a healthy way to view life as a journey and any mishaps or blowback as learning experiences, not mistakes.
It was so simple then.
Now, at 66, with more years behind me than ahead, I find myself with plenty to regret—letters unanswered, calls unreturned, friendships neglected, career path going awry, giving up on a relationship too soon or not soon enough, mountains of things undone, and so on.
I don’t usually dwell on these things, but lately I've been finding myself looking back more often and wondering what if, and if only.
What if I’d said this instead of that, chosen that instead of the other thing? If only I had turned left instead of right, taken the other fork in the road, followed this advice instead of that.
Where would I be now?
With the benefit of hindsight, surely I’d be able to fix things that went wrong, make the right choices this time, or at least better ones. Surely I’d regret less!
Or would I?
If I were somehow granted the grace to do any of it differently, would I actually do it? And would it make any difference?
And if it did, maybe I’d just make the same mistakes in different ways. Or make different mistakes and still end up exactly where I am now, or maybe even worse off.
Maybe changing one small thing changes everything, but the end result may be no better (as in the film Sliding Doors), or maybe it makes no difference to the ultimate outcome (as in the Netflix series Dark). So if I went back and followed a path that I now believe would have been better or wiser, who knows what fresh hell might come from that?
Besides, even the things I regret the most are integral to who I am today. Most days, I wouldn’t change that, regrets and all.
But that doesn’t mean I want to keep doing things the way I’ve always done them. Many a time I’ve made a resolution never to do that again!
This, of course, hardly ever works—humans seem destined to make the same mistakes over and over again, or make different mistakes with the same results—and I am no exception. So I've stopped making resolutions altogether, since they always fail and always lead to nothing but more regret.
When I first began writing this piece in early January, I'd been hearing a lot about resolutions.
If the media are anything to go by, in the run-up to New Year’s Eve, life is all about making resolutions; in the early weeks of the new year, it’s all about which ones you’ve broken already.
Now, for all I know, nobody actually makes a list of resolutions, and maybe the whole thing is a fiction created by radio show producers to fill dead air between Christmas and New Year’s.
But even if you don’t make resolutions, maybe instead you do something like “setting intentions” or “goals.” I know I do. (For the past few years I've been choosing a "word of the year" as a way of setting an intention.)
Whatever you call it, there’s something in the turning of the secular calendar that has come to mean a fresh start, a clean slate, turning over a new leaf—pick your metaphor for making changes to turn yourself into a better human.
I’m all for doing an annual inventory, celebrating wins, mourning losses, making plans to repeat the one and minimize the other. I’m generally not organized enough or focused enough to actually do it, but I’m all for it.
Yet it often seems that the resolutions/goals/intentions we make are entirely unrealistic, even impossible.
We tell ourselves, I will lose 50 pounds in three months! I will make a shit-ton of money this year! Quit smoking/drinking! Get back to running! Be happier, dammit!
In other words, we set ourselves up to fail.
And indeed, by the end of February, many of those New Year’s resolutions might just be looking a little bit less shiny.
Maybe your virtuous plan to go running at 6:00 am like you did in high school isn’t looking so attractive when it’s minus 30 degrees out there and your bed is very warm and cozy. Maybe you’ll just burrow deeper under your duvet instead of bouncing out of bed and lacing up your runners in the pitch dark morning.
Or maybe that carton of chocolate ice cream is beginning to look a lot more attractive than a lower number on the scale.
So we stay in bed or we eat the ice cream. Then we regret the choice.
Not only that, but we find ourselves thinking we should be able to do better, to do more, and what’s wrong with us? Never mind that the resolution was impossible to begin with—we should be able to beat the odds.
Before we know it, our dashed expectations are no longer simple regret but something much bigger. We begin to slide helplessly down a rabbit hole of regret as we ruminate about our inability to do the thing.
Maybe we decide to take another run at it, to meet our goals by force of will alone.
That may work in the short term but it’s exhausting and doesn’t actually help with lasting change. It just makes us allergic to making goals.
So we resolve to stop making resolutions.
But then, how do we make changes to the habits that keep us stuck? If sheer force of will doesn’t work, beating ourselves up doesn’t work, regrets and resolutions don’t work, what do we do to pull ourselves up and aim for the light?
The only thing I know of that really does move people forward is self-compassion.
Because before we can change something we have to understand it.
Before we can understand it we need to see it clearly.
Before we can see it clearly, we need to separate the thing itself from the story about self-recrimination that we’ve attached to it. (Or the story about how it's actually somebody else's fault, which is the flip side of the same coin.)
In order to separate the thing from the story, we need to drop the story. The only way I know of to drop the story is to apply compassion to the wound, not more force or more wishing for change.
My experience has been that when I apply compassion and drop the story of how deeply messed up I am, I'm able to see mistakes for what they are: mistakes. Not fatal. Not a sign of being deeply messed up. Merely a sign of humanity.
For me, meditation and writing are part of this process.
In particular, contemplative writing practice—where writing and meditation meet—allows me to see more clearly, if I’m courageous enough to meet myself on the page and show in words what actually happened rather than tell the story I’ve spun myself into over and over and over again.
If I’m courageous enough, I may even find truth on the page.
In fact, sometimes I'm even able to see how my story is actually part of the problem. Through telling the story on the page, I can see when I've made the thing be all about me and my flaws and what's wrong with me. Through telling the story on the page, I can see what stories I keep telling over and over again, and how that might be keeping me from healing or taking action.
It's only when I write it all down that I can see it with any clarity. I can regret what's mine, rather than remaining mired in a story filled with half-truths and outright lies.
There's nothing wrong with regret.
I've come to believe that having no regrets is probably a sign of not paying attention. Every regret offers the gift of at least one lesson that can be used to live a better life as a better human.
A life with no regrets, like a life unexamined, is really a life unlived.