There are many who will tell you they have no regrets in life. They lived their lives the way they meant to and every new turn, every new nook, every new bump need not have been lived another way.
Seriously? You mean to tell me that every time you made a choice you made the right one? You mean to tell me that your life had only one correct way of unfolding itself and this is it? This is the only one and it could have been no other way?
You mean to tell me that you have the confidence to have figured it all out?
It is one thing to not wallow in regret, to not waste energy on what cannot be changed, to let bygones be bygones. It is quite another to not realize that a nuanced life has potential for regret.
Life, in many ways, is like a story. Or rather, even the best story is a feeble imitation of life whittled down to a single plot. At every turn, you make a choice. But in that very act of making a choice, you leave out making innumerable other choices that could have been.
In that very act of choosing one plot versus the rest there is inbuilt potential for regret. One plot becomes reality while the rest is relegated to the world of what if’s.
So regret in reality can never be free from fiction. Regret is dependent on memory and memory is dependent on perception of the past at the present moment and perception creates the story of the past. It is also about choosing an arbitrary moment in time to go back to over and over again and playing it on rewind & repeat mode until the tape snaps or the CD is scratched or the mind is desensitized. That point is arbitrary. That point is self-chosen. There could have been innumerable other moments in the continuum called life. The event is what happened. The interpretation was ours to make.
It is when our desire to change those events, to choose another plot as opposed to the one that is already in place overcomes our sense of the present that regret hangs about our necks like the proverbial albatross. But this does not mean that regret is necessarily a negative feeling.
Can regret help us grow because we can learn from it?
To me, regret does not present a learning opportunity. The future is going to be very different from the past as the past was different from the future and our understanding of both is dependent on the immediacy of the present. So how can we employ our inferences based on regret in the present to the future based on what we know from the past?
I think regret helps us in a far more nuanced way.
Regret presents a way of understanding that changeable and developing entity we call our selves. What we had been then and what we are now, our contexts then and our contexts now, the information we had then versus the experience we have now is in constant flux. That is who we are. Our character shaped what we did then but we were shaped by the events that took place subsequently based on our choices . Character and plot are interdependent and both are in constant development. So our perceptions of past events i.e. regrets need not be fixed too. What is regrettable now need not seem so tomorrow.
Had we picked another plot from a turning point we have chosen to see as a watershed moment in our lives, we would have been a character in that other story. But this person we call me at the present moment would have been quite a different character with a different set of understanding faculties and experiences then.
A stranger would have been standing here, which may have been not here, reflecting on what could have been had they chosen this present plot which we inhabit now. That person would have been someone else, perhaps longing to be who we are now with just as imperfect an understanding of our current life as we have of theirs in their would-have-been-world.
The mishmash of real and unreal plots and a mix-up of self and stranger is what regret is dependent on. Hence, regret, ultimately, is an impetus in an imagined story.
I read a nice post a while ago which got me thinking about regret: Has Regret Helped You Grow as a Writer?