We should regret our mistakes and learn from them, but never carry them forward into the future with us. –Lucy Maud Montgomery
My paternal grandmother gifted me with something very special: her undivided attention. Growing up as the oldest of four, one-on-one time with an adult was rare. I assume she also spent time with my siblings, but that’s not what I remember. What I remember is sitting at the kitchen table after dinner, over cups of tea (mine with milk and gobs of sugar). She asked probing questions and seemed genuinely interested in conversations that included my favorite books and movies, my circle of friends, and my dance recitals. Most adults would have nodded off long before I had a chance to describe my latest modern dance routine set to the Bangles’ Eternal Flame.
During one of these evenings when I was ten or eleven, I interviewed her for a school project. The assignment involved interviewing an “older person” using a set of assigned questions. One of these questions was, “What are your regrets?” I remember feeling surprised when she responded that she didn’t have any regrets. I may have thought that she wasn’t being honest and simply didn’t want to tell me. Or maybe I thought my grade would suffer if I didn’t get the full scoop from grandma.
Looking back on it, she probably didn’t answer because she thought the question was intrusive. She also answered, “old enough not to say” in response to a question about her age; a woman unwilling to tell her granddaughter her age was unlikely to divulge her deepest regrets to a class of 5th graders. Unless the question about regret was intended to elicit a glib response such as “I regret eating a second slice of chocolate cake,” it probably was intrusive.
On the other hand, perhaps she really didn’t have any regrets. Unfortunately, she has since passed away, so I can’t ask her. But, I know that plenty of people claim they don’t have regrets. If you are happy with your life as it is, it’s hard to justify regret. Any different choices or “roads not taken” could alter our path or send our life on a different trajectory.
This makes me wonder about the value of regrets. Are they best forgotten about and swept aside? Do we go with Katherine Mansfield, who said, “Regret is an appalling waste of energy, you can’t build on it – it’s only good for wallowing in”? Or do we go with Henry David Thoreau who advises us to, “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.”
It seems to me that regret tends to fall into two camps: 1) remorse for mistakes we have made or 2) grief for opportunities we didn’t take. I do regret things I have done or said that were unkind or hurt someone else. Aside from that, I don’t have many regrets. Even choices that I regretted at the time have mostly changed in retrospect, since I now see how they were leading me in this direction. I just couldn’t see the path when the memories were still fresh. Maybe that’s the danger of regret— it narrows our focus in one direction and distracts us from the many other possibilities.
When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us. –Alexander Graham Bell
Do you hold on to any regrets? Do you regret things you didn’t do or say or opportunities not taken? Or things you did do or say? Or are you of the mind that everything happens for a reason and regrets are a waste of time?