“Of all sad words of mouth or pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.”
—John Greenleaf Whittier
In other words: Regrets! And yes, Whittier was so right—regrets are a sad thing. Unless…
Who doesn’t have regrets about a lot of things? Maybe kids don’t, but they are the only ones, and that’s easy to elucidate: The little ones have not had enough time to do anything they would frown upon later on. But just a few years on, they will surely join the club of the universal “regretters” of past gaffes and mishaps.
Gurus tell us to turn the page, to forget about the past and just look forward. They compel us to accept the fact that what has been done cannot be undone. In other words, “forget about regrets and focus on the day and eventually, the future”. This sounds wise at first. However, what these gurus don’t know or feign to ignore is the fact that regrets have a life of their own. No matter what you do, regrets will still haunt your nights and sometimes part of your days despite your firm decision to put everything behind. Regardless of what you do, there will always be an event that occurs during your daily life that makes you feel sorry for what you did a long time ago, or for that matter, what you actually did not. Doing nothing is often as bad as doing something inappropriate, if not worse.
When you are stuck in traffic, almost drowsing after a long day at work, and suddenly, you see next to you a white car that looks like your ex’s and you remember how stupid you were in letting her go. Or when you check your dwindling bank account and say to yourself, shit, I should have taken that job when it was possible. What if you were trying to get some sleep on a Sunday afternoon and your mind, wandering here and there, crunching sweet memories, suddenly remembers the day when your dad called and you snapped back because you were busy and never called back as promised. Two weeks later, he dies.
There will always be something that reminds you of your past and eventually makes you feel uncomfortable with your current life. People calls them regrets, I’d rather call them consequences. Meaningful consequences that should be mended and adjusted, if and when possible. Looking at regrets from this angle transforms them into simple past actions that can be reversed, and consequently, regrets aren’t any more states of mind that eat your heart out. They become an action plan, sort of a revenge over the past and an opportunity to take hold once again of your destiny, which at a certain point you had lost control of.
Dwelling on something sorrowful without the will to do anything about it could be dangerous. On the other hand, knowing that things could change provided some action is decided is a big relief. Most of our happiness relies on expectations and anticipation.
Le meilleur moment de l’amour, c’est quand on monte l’escalier, Georges Clemenceau once said—The best moment of love is when you climb the stairs.
Despite us pondering here about negative thoughts, the similarity still applies: anticipating is sometimes stronger than the fact itself.
I believe that Clemenceau is very right while I don’t agree at all with that other French man, Albert Camus, who said that Tout le malheur des hommes vient de l’espérance—all the misfortune of men comes from hope. That’s pretty depressing, I guess. I personally find that hope is the most important thing that keeps us alive and fighting purposefully.
Even if Camus was a major philosopher and Clemenceau just a shrewd politician, my belief is that Clemenceau was right. I think politicians are more down-to-earth than philosophers. Philosophers tend to go deeper than necessary and forget sometimes the realities of daily life. Maybe this is why I often have a problem with these self-proclaimed contemporary philosophers who call themselves “gurus”. I am not talking about Camus or Socrates or any comparable genuine thinkers. I am talking about those who fill page after page with mumbo-jumbo advices that most of the time make no sense even if the words sound great.
Strange people these gurus. They have an opinion about every possible issue: grief, happiness, sorrow, love, headaches, and even how to get rid of your hemorrhoids and so on and so forth. They leave no emotion untouched and pretend to have a cure or a miraculous advice for just about everything. How can one be so assertive about this wide scope of emotions without having adequate experience?
Sitting under an oak tree, growing a goatee, or being outspoken is not enough. Experience is key. Would you possibly guess what pain is and how bad it is unless you have gone through the same ordeal yourself?
Gurus deal with grief as if all grief feels alike and accordingly, the treatment should be the same—like a wide spectrum antibiotic that is supposed to cure all types of germs. Grief is so specific to everyone. Every person has his own kind of sorrow. People are unique, so are their feelings. Every person is one of a kind and so are the problems he gets into. Of course, there are generalizations of issues: grief over a lost love, a dead parent, a relative or a friend. Maybe the loss of a job or a financial disaster. Nevertheless, every emotion is specific to the person feeling it.
But what the heck! Don’t kill the messenger, says the wise man. So we won’t kill the messenger; we will tap him on the hand and will try to make things right. Regrets are part of us. For some, they come and go occasionally. Others dwell in it throughout their lives and that’s truly bad. If living with regrets is tiresome and draining, doing nothing about it is suicide.
But what are regrets in the end?
Regrets are the prison we jail ourselves in, whilst the key is at hand. But what are we saying here? We are talking about the past, and the past cannot be undone. Right? Your ex with a white car is already married and you cannot get her back. The job you were offered is already taken. Your dad is dead and nothing will bring him back. But how about you treat your next date better—based on your previous mishap—and have her or him for the rest of your life, and do it right this time? How about you prepare yourself better for the next job? It is your choice to make your dad smile in heaven when you call your mom more frequently.
Who says regrets are bad or aren’t useful? Regrets motivate us to mend things or avoid the same mistakes. Turn the page, but don’t bury the book. Your future could depend on your past.
(Lyrics by Paul Anka)
…Regrets, I’ve had a few;
But then again, too few to mention.
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption…
…Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew.
But through it all, when there was doubt,
I ate it up and spat it out.
I faced it all and I stood tall;
And did it my way…
…To think I did all that;
And may I say—not in a shy way,
“Oh no, oh no not me,
I did it my way”…
…For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels;
And not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows I took the blows—
And did it my way!…