The Anatomy of Regret

English: The lines meet... ...Or do they part?...

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?

10 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Regret”

  1. Contrarian opinion alert; respectfully suggesting it is possible to live without regret if you’re happy where you are now. My daughter once asked me what I regretted most in life and I replied it wasn’t a safe question for her to ask because the answer would not bode well for her existence (unwed teenage pregnancy cliche). Later, I called her back to revise my answer. Had I not been that cliche and muddled through that particular experience, I would have been too afraid to have done all the things I later went on to accomplish. I’ve thought about regret a lot, which led to my Regret Test that I blogged about
    I use the movie Sliding Doors as a training tool. Two or three seconds can make all the difference, but eventually Helen and James ended up where they were supposed to be, just getting there on an alternate path. Since Mema raised the Butterfly Effect, I’ll add that a regret test may be a fractal. At the lowest level the details emerge and the conclusion is unknown and at the biggest level the conclusion may be known and the details are concealed. If the conclusion is a happy one (however the person defines it) the details in getting there may, indeed, not cause that person any regret.


  2. When people tell me that they have no regrets I think they’re being an asshole, which makes me think that when I say that I do have regrets that maybe they think I’m an asshole; because they think I’m about to whine. Which I don’t, but maybe regret just brings out the asshole in all of us.


  3. You’ve made some really great points here. I, too, am flabbergasted when told by someone they have no regrets. It seems very unlikely to me anyone, with the benefit of hindsight, might not have made a different choice sometime along the way.


  4. Yes, I am annoyed when people say they have no regrets. I feel like it is a cover-up for some things they maybe would have done differently, but it is almost too painful to admit.

    Not good to live in regret, but I think it is healthy to admit regret.


  5. As a writer, I find the challenge is how do I JUST live? Too often I’m over-analyzing the moments which can lead to regret or depression. I think Shakespare said it best when he wrote: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” It is an ongoing literary concept where poets like Rudyard Kipling thrive: “triumphs and disasters…” These two imposters are the same. Therefore, regrets are just falsehoods of a thinking, active mind…and it’s a liar. It’s the Butterfly Effect all over again…if you were intended to make a different choice from the one you chose to live, then, you would have. But, the choice was the best of all probable outcomes & whether the result was good, bad or indifferent; it doesn’t really matter. The point is that you lived in it or through it. That’s the human flaw: how do we just learn not to judge it, label it, better it? In my opinion, that’s the trouble with writers…we’re literally OVER-thinking which is ruining the experience. Trust me, I’m no guru. I’m just learning to enjoy it all. It’s a constant battle between idealizing/pontificating vs just living. Life is like a “choose-your-own-adventure” book. I enjoy your posts very much so…here’s hoping your story has a long plotline!


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