Lest We Forget

‘Live without regret.’

We’ve all heard this before. Probably seen these words tattooed on some shmuck’s shoulder. It is a commonly branded idea, which your life coach, trending pop star or distracting bumper sticker will advocate with great confidence. And rightly so, it is a sound idea. You can’t alter the past, so why let it ruin, or even gently disturb your future? Surely years spent propelling forward in a blaze of positivity is preferable to decades of wallowing?

But as cogent and righteous as this premise is, how wise — or even realistic, is it? Is a man who does not learn from life’s mistakes, from his own personal failures and humiliations, not destined to repeat them? If time is not spent stewing on these indignations, if a resolve is not developed to eradicate the cause of remorse, was there a point of experiencing them at all?

Bronnie Ware is an Australian blogger-turned-author who found fame citing the most common death bed regrets she learned during her eight year tenure working as a live-in palliative care nurse. They are, in no particular order: 1. ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’ 2. ‘I wish I didn’t work so hard’. 3. ‘I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.’ 4. ‘I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends’. And 5. ‘I wish that I had let myself be happier’. These prudent rues have been wrought through decades of fumbling through daily experience, and realised and ruminated upon in what surely must be the most self-analytical, and truthful moments in one’s conscious existence. If you can’t be honest with yourself when dwarfed by death’s door, well… You’re running out of chances to do so.

So if these powerful feelings seem to be overwhelmingly repeated (and thanks to Ms Ware, recorded) do they not deserve our appropriate attention? Are there not crucial lessons to be learned? These regrets therefore signify a substantial social value. The fact that our wiser elders have dragged themselves through this emotional minefield, and come out of the other end with pearls to bestow to the rest of us. It seems that having regret is not only essential, it’s even noble.

As profound and universal as these five ruminations are, the last one is particularly poignant. The ‘allowing oneself to be happy’. The permitting of oneself to feel an emotion, implies that is a choice. One can simply forgo any cultural or familial pressures or obligations, and simply choose to be content in themselves and their existence. This is a hugely powerful concept, and one that could also pertain to regret. Is it a function that we could potentially just switch off? How much control do we have over it? Is there any point in approaching the feeling of regret with reasoning and rational balancing, when it may be a primal, subconscious function?

The region of the brain that deals with regret is called the Ventral Stratium.This section of your frontal lobe also has the task of decision making. Two functions that go hand in hand. Or lobe in lobe.

Bad decisions lead to regret. Fear of regret leads to indecision. The two cerebral functions are hopelessly intertwined. So let’s deal with them together.

We make thousands of decisions a day. Many without direct conscious arbitration involved. But then there are others that are more meaningful. Decisions where you are very aware of that you are making choices that may have long-standing, life altering consequences. Should I accept this job? Marry this person? Get that tattoo?

I had my first tattoo furiously needled into my skin when I was a young looking sixteen-year-old. My reasons for doing so still stand. It is a personal reminder that I even now, over a half a lifetime later, still draw upon. But the ink itself, the tribal design I naively pointed to on that wall. That, I could use less of in my life. Some say it looks like a cockroach crawling up my arm, others say it reminds them of the 1997 Superleague logo. Some just laugh.

So I am now faced with two decisions. Can I clock it everyday and think — ‘You green, little half-adult. What were you thinking?’ Or I could answer that question. I could ignore the lessons of years since passed, and transplant myself back into the headspace of that sixteen year old, standing in front of that wall of generic doodles, with his mates looking over his shoulder. And remember just how badly I wanted this tattoo. And I remind myself that that green little moron and I are the same person. I am that moron. So I own that person. I can’t wish the tattoo to change. And deep down, I don’t think I really want to. So when my friends laugh at it… I laugh along.

But not all regret is only visible in hindsight. Not all remorse is finalised. Some is ongoing.

John Barrymore, a long-dead American actor once said: “A person is not old until regrets take the place of their dreams.” This brand of aspirational advice’s target demographic is not the old, regret-ridden pensioner, stewing on folded dreams. But the young person with time to do something about it.

Motivation like this can transmogrify regret into drive. Remorse into passionate resolution. That nagging lament over that goal you’ve had set for years, but have made little ground in realising. All of that can be used as fire in the belly. Enough of that feeling will bring you to a point where your stomach aches with it, and someday, enough becomes enough. The regret of inaction may have become a more overwhelming feeling than the initial inclination to do the intended thing. Whatever it may be.

In this approach, regret is a commodity. An attribute. And this perspective is only set by choice. How you skew these emotions in your mind when they arise from your gut.

“The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them. Especially not from yourself.” — Daniel Dennett.

Regret is unavoidable. It’s coming. It is inbuilt in us. What matters is how you accept it. If you have the moral fortitude to ignore it, as it has zero use to you, then fair play. On paper, you’re sound.

The alternative is to embrace it. To not let it chip away at you, but absorb it and let your chest naturally widen with it. Then it is no longer a dread, governing your decisions. It is merely a future part of you.