in Philosophy, Reading

Thoughts on Regret

Jeff recently sent me Top Five Regrets of The Dying. I think it’s worth reading. After all, we could all use a little more introspection. However, I also think it’s important to recognize some context. As morbid and perhaps unempathetic as it may sound, these are the regrets of the dying, a perspective from which the non-dying have a very difficult time comprehending.

Before I pontificate about my specific views of each of these regrets, I need to lay some foundation about my thoughts on regret more generally. In a nutshell, I don’t have regret in the way that it is popularly recognized.

Does that mean that I don’t recognize that I have made mistakes? Of course not. I guess the best way that I can articulate my thoughts on regret is by saying that I strive to make the best decision that I can, with the information that I have, at the time that I make that decision.

In other words, each decision that I make, for better or for worse, is part of the bigger collection of all my decisions which comprise my path. Therefore, even my worst mistakes and poorest decisions do not produce regret. They are an intricate part of my path or journey. In fact, they are a critical part, as they present the greatest opportunity for learning and shaping future decisions. In essense, my mistakes serve to help me make better decisions. How could I possibly regret decisions that help me make better future decisions.

Ok, enough about regret generally. Let’s talk about some specifics:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

An interesting regret to say the least. However, in my humble opinion, it is rife with misunderstanding.

First, what is a life true to myself? Is it a life without mistake? Is it a life without regret? As discussed earlier, mistakes are a part of the learning process. Regrets don’t really come into play.

Said another way, perhaps a life true to oneself is one’s image of one’s “perfect life.” But one’s perfect life is the culmiation of one’s decisions. There can be nothing more perfect than one’s actual journey.

To me, what’s really going on here is a recognition of the compromises that one makes throughout one’s life as a social being.

Even the most hedonistic and selfish among us are forced to make compromises on a daily basis. Sometimes these compromises are done merely to please someone else. But again, this is a misunderstanding. The reason: the compromise or sacrifice to please another is actually a selfish decision. It is merely placing a higher value on the pleasure of another of one’s own personal pleasure.

Let’s look at an extreme example. You push a stranger out of the way of a moving car, knowing that it will be you who will be injured or killed. Why did you do it? Altruism for your fellow human? Perhaps, but more likely it was because you valued how you are perveived to yourself, others, or perhaps your God (which are really all just other ways of viewing yourself).

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard. 

Ok, but do you also wish that you hadn’t provided as much for your family? Do you wish that you had less freedom in economic choice? Do those that don’t work at all enjoy less regret? Doubtful. You worked hard for a vareity of reasons. You could have worked less, or not at all. Guess what, you’d be regretting that decision too.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

I love this one. The manner in which how, when, and to what degree to express your feelings are partly within your conscious control, and partly involuntary reactions to your circumstances. First, are you going to regret those that are involuntary? Do you regret your height? Do you regret the length of your ear lobes? If so, see regret above. Second, with regard to your conscious decisions to withhold expression of emotion, again, it was likely there were reasons you chose to do so. Does that make you numb? Does it make you less human? C’mon man. Myself, I am thankful that we have evolved to be able to control the manner, place, and extent that we express our feelings. Consider the alternative, a world in which our greatest feelings of rage, jealously, envy, hate, sadness, etc, run completely unfettered. Still have regrets?

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. 

I love my friends. I put a high premium on my time with them. But not everyone does. And again, those that don’t probably made these decisions for a reason. Here are some that come to mind: Raising a family, working (see above), learning, etc. Do you regret spending more time wth your family (see below)? Do you regret having economic freedoms? You spent as much time as you could with your friends considering the compromises, sacrifices, and values that you put on other aspects of your life.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier. 

No you didn’t. You allowed yourself to be as happy as you were capable at each stage of your life. I agree with the notion that life and happiness are largely a matter of choice. But if you accept that premise, we’re back to square one: How can you regret your choices, and in turn, the level of happiness that you chose for yourself throughout your life?

I can understand why people who are dying have these feelings. And I humbly concede, that even though we’re all dying, I can’t have the same perspective as those for whom death is a much more imminent reality.

However, I must also assert that I came to terms with my mortality, as well as, my choices long ago. Does that mean I won’t ever feel impulsive regret? No. Does it mean that I won’t have a different perspective when my death is imminent? Of course not.

But I do hope that I am able to reflect on my life (and perhaps this post) and understand that I did strive to make the best choices, with the information that I had at the time, and consciously reconcile that with any involuntary feelings of regret that I might experience.

Hopefully that will be enough.