Maybe it’s time to give regret a rest

Updated to Habits, Life on December 27, 2022.

Somewhere in the middle of a 14-hour train ride from Haridwar, India to Agra my daughter and I killed time watching a downloaded copy of the comedy “We are the Millers.”

It’s about bungling drug dealer David Clark (Jason Sudeikis) who enlists three others (including his “wife”, a stripper played by Jennifer Aniston) to pretend to be a family so they can drive an RV to Mexico for the one big drug deal he needs to clear his name.

In my favourite scene, Sudeikis’s character is meeting for the first time a young, tattooed carney worker, named Scottie, who his ‘daughter’ just met and is obviously fond of.

“And, ah, what’s that tattoo on your chest there?” Sudeikis asks, pointing at the large gothic font reading “NO RAGRETS”

“No Regrets, Man.” the long-haired boy replies, “That’s the creed I live by. You get me?”

“No regrets? Really?” replies the slightly stunned Sudeikis, “You’ve got no regrets…not even one?

The movie might have gotten a 48% rating by Rotten Tomatoes, but days after our visit to the Taj Mahal and surrounding monuments of Agra I was still thinking about the “No RAGRETS” scene. What about the regrets I have in my life?

We all have regrets

Every day we have regrets.

And like a sore knee or shoulder, it’s surprising how often our regrets enter our conscious thoughts:

“Damn! How could I have forgotten to call her?”

“I can’t believe they said that to me—that was so uncaring!”

“I wish I’d invested in that property – life would be so much easier now.”

Author Arthur Miller postulated about the inevitability of regret “Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.” Even the definition of ‘regret’ is full of foreboding: ’to mourn the loss or death of, to miss very much, to be very sorry for.’

Literature is full of examples of regret; from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Hugo’s Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Many movies plots are built around regrets, like The Fisher King with Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges. And more recently, Crazy Heart, again with Jeff Bridges, this time playing the part of a broken-down country music singer forced to reassess his dysfunctional life.

But what if we didn’t have regret?

Or, at the very least, we didn’t allow regret to be all-consuming, as it’s often portrayed in books or on the big screen?

Going offline, no regrets.

I wrote the draft for this post on my return fight from 6 weeks of being mostly off-line. If you haven’t gone unplugged recently, you should.

For the first two weeks, exploring Indian by train, car, jeep, raft, trails, camels and Tuk Tuk’s it was either impossible or, at best, awkward to get online. After a while, I just stopped caring.

It was wonderful.

To go through a whole day, not once thinking I needed to take a picture so I could “post it” or thinking I needed to check for updates was immensely freeing.

I took pictures when I wanted to, wrote in a paper journal when I felt moved to and relished in the experience of being fully with the daughter I was traveling with.

But, at first, I did feel some regret. Mostly when I would make a feeble attempt to plough through some thousand unread emails.

I wasn’t doing enough; requests were going unread; questions from staff were unanswered.

And so, I had a choice.

Feel regret, or move on

Regret is often the feeling that my actions didn’t meet my over-inflated estimations of future performance.

We regret we didn’t exercise more often.

We regret we wasted the morning on Facebook and Instagram.

We regret we didn’t call to thank a friend for the card they sent.

…you get the picture.

Regret is a natural point in time when we are reminded we are human—a point where, as Thoreau put it, “we can find compassion in every disappointment.” That’s all.

Regret does not have to define us. in fact, regret can’t define us. It’s just one of a billion little synapses firing off saying “Hey, have a look at this.” I can choose to stop everything and allow a tiny brain-fart to define me, or I can take note and move on.

When we allow regret to define us we don’t grow.

To grow we first need to understand that regretting past performance is waste of time and energy. Yes, you need to know how you are doing. But, don’t regret it.

Look back to learn, look forward to grow.

Every day we are stepping forward in life. Showing up at work, taking care of family, fitting in some free time. And every day we are gifted with lessons we can learn from.

  • I hesitated before talking with a stranger, but once I said “Hello” the conversation turned into a wonderful exchange of travel ideas.
  • Instead of rushing into the morning, I made some tea and wrote in my journal. I felt more patient and thoughtful.
  • I had an opportunity to tell my child how proud I am of her strength but didn’t. Timing is less important than intent, so I do it now.
  • I can look back to learn, but it’s more important I step forward to grow.

I want to show up strong, independent and bold. I don’t want to show up as a shadow of missed opportunities and great ideas that never got started.

No regrets, only lessons.

We all screw up or make mistakes that hurt people or disappoint ourselves.

That’s life. We aren’t mindless robots and we do screw up.

We also have a remarkable capacity to step from regret – to lesson – to new behaviour. This is, to quote Micheal J. Fox, “to realize that none of those holes are vacuums.”

It could be mid-sentence when you apologize for a comment you made in haste or anger. Or it could be a week later when you feel the weight of a commitment you avoided and, finally, take action to remedy it.

The choice is always yours. And the choice is always available for you to take.

Take it.