I regret binge watching Netflix hours before a Chemistry test. I regret studying two chapters worth of AP European HIstory content for an exam at three in the morning. I regret eating the entire tiramisu myself. I regret not telling my feelings to my crush before it was too late, and I most certainly regret writing this post a week late—I regret everything. Years-old decisions, things I have said and shouldn’t have said, things I don’t ever say, opportunities I purposefully missed, opportunities I took, recent purchases at the mall, non-purchases, and especially returns.
All of these things are constantly replayed and reexamined for clues in my mind—I’m not sure why though. All that I know is that very little of what I do or what I failed to do is constantly played over and over my head. In a way, it’s like being a time traveler, only instead of going back to Ancient Greece or to the Romantic Era, I return again and again to the traumatic sites of my own decisions. Sure, I cringe and shrink back into my seat whenever I get a morbid flashback, but I tend to think of it as a way to get to know myself—to know the real me. After all, as the great J.K. Rowling once wrote, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Regret is often considered an antithesis, with its belief in narrow-minded perseverance. People feel they need to deny regret and deny failure in order to stay in the game; the game where everyone scrambles to get to the top to enjoy the best of life’s offerings. Our discomfort with regret, reflects a discomfort with our limit over control. It gets easier every day to project a future without regret, so that we can look back without hesitation. Life is not mysterious as it is portrayed, it’s all based on mathematics. All we have to do is track our productivity, our spending, our steps, and our calorie consumption. Count our friends, likes, tweets, and follows. This illusion of control over every aspect of our lives is very powerful. There is always something available that we could do one day to avoid regret and pain the next day. To admit regret is to completely admit to a failure of self-control. Therefore, it’s best to the treat the past like like it never happened: just shut the door and walk away. After all, there’s no use crying over spilt milk.
I regret regretting things all the time, because I could be putting my brain to much better use. Like wise, I regret that I’m compelled to talk about my regrets to other people, not just at home, but at dinner, at school, in the car, on the phone, and in print. I regret these things because I’m aware of how my regrets are going to be perceived once I express them. What I want are deep explanations of parallel, alternate universes unknown and the possible outcomes to my current predicament. What I get in return are puppy-eyed smiles, gentle pats on the arm or head, and the occasional awkward pep talk, which is never what I’m after.
“The past,” William Faulkner once wrote, “is never dead. It’s not even past.” Great pieces of literature are often about regret, the life-changing consequences of a single, bad decision over a long period of time. Not surprisingly, it turns out that one’s greatest regrets revolve around their education, career, and love life, because decisions made around these issues have long-term and ever-expanding repercussions. The point of regret isn’t to try to change or recreate the past, but to shed light on the present. This is the realm of the humanities. What novels constantly tell us is that regret is instructive, and the first thing it tells us is that something in the present is wrong.
Mixed feelings are not only what make us more human, they’re what make us rational in our decisions. They help us arrive at complicated truths. Rather than deny regret, we should embrace it and strive for an ideal while remembering that outcomes are always random, and that all possibilities exist simultaneously.
Yours Truly, Joanna