Most of my life, I've regarded regrets as regrettable. They are nothing I want clinging to me. When I think about it, I've probably judged them as a weakness of character in the overly sentimental.
I've changed my mind.
I've come to see regrets as pains worth feeling, because they play a key function in our emotional growth. Regrets can eat us up. Or we can use them to learn about ourselves and change. Option B is the more appealing.
Retirement, for those who can do it, is time allotted to us so we can have no regrets at the end.
If you haven't already, why not start now to clean up lingering regrets? Think of it as emotional hygiene. It might take a while if there's a pile to wade through. The payoff, if you are thorough, will be freedom from regret at the finish line.
A good friend of mine, now in his nineties, said to me earlier this summer, "If you have regrets at the end of your life, you haven't lived."
The Two Kinds of Regret
Regret comes in only two flavors: things we do, and things we don't do. Things we do are done. We can't rewrite history. But we can remediate the damage done. Things we don't do are wishes, yearnings, and self-fulfillments. If we are lucky, we can do something about those before it's too late and we are left only with regrets.
The Big Five
If you type "regrets" into a browser, you are likely to find reference to a 2009 blog post entitled, "Regrets of the Dying," written by a former palliative care nurse from Australia named Bronnie Ware. So popular was Ware's post that it spawned a memoir that has sold more than a million copies worldwide (because everybody in the world has regrets, and often the same regrets).
After witnessing dozens of final days and asking dying people the same question — What regrets do you have, and is there anything you would have done differently? — Ware found that common themes surfaced repeatedly. These were the top five:
1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
This was the most common regret. "Most people had not honored even half of their dreams," Ware told interviewer Susie Steiner for a Guardian article in 2012. Her patients had made certain choices, and not made other choices. And health, when it fails, changes everything.
(I had a beloved mother-in-law years ago, who was robbed of her dreams to write more, appreciate more art, and travel more of the world because she choose instead to serve a ceaselessly demanding husband. In the end, after diabetes and strokes had weakened her, she was, I recall, quite embittered by the rotten hand she had been dealt, in part by herself. With a sadness that is with me even today, I imagine that her regrets loomed large.)
2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
Every male patient who Ware nursed had this regret. Many of the women too. It was about missing the early years with their children because they traded family time for more time working. Lovers of work apparently protested this insight from Ware. How ridiculous. Work has meaning, as we know. And surely, many of Ware's patients were people who loved their work. But their devotion to it came at a steep cost that was only made clear when it was too late.
Zen Hospice founder Frank Ostseski has called death, “the secret teacher hiding in plain sight.”
3. I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.
Ware: "Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming."
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Ware: "There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying."
I saw this in my dying father. Days from death, he called his oldest friend, a university buddy, also 85 and also in failing health. They hadn't seen each other in decades, although they kept in touch sporadically by email. In that phone call, they said goodbye. My father wept, which was unusual for him. He had allowed all his friendships to wither during the last four decades of his life. In the end, he was mourning memories, and really, only a distant ones.
5. I wish that I let myself be happier.
Ware: "Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits... Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again."
Note to self: Amp the silliness.
Are some regrets just too big?
I think so, particularly if you have caused serious pain beyond yourself. If you have, for example, been a political leader responsible for thousands of deaths, and you have a shred of self-awareness and remorse, that would be difficult to see as a learning experience to filed under "Done." Or take Brexit. Here's David Cameron, the former British prime minister, who blithely launched the referendum that led to the UK's enormous pain around Brexit. In a recent interview on British television he said:
“I have huge regrets. I regret that we lost the campaign. I regret I let expectations about the negotiation run far too high. I regret some of the individual decisions we made in the campaign... If you’re asking me; do I have regrets? Yes. Am I sorry about the state the country’s got into? Yes. Do I feel I have some responsibility for that? Yes. It was my referendum; my campaign; my decision to try and renegotiate. And I accept all of those things and people, including those watching this program, will have to decide how much blame to put on me.”
It would be strange, assuming Cameron is being honest, if he didn't take those well-earned regrets to his grave.
Being Eaten Alive
David Cameron does not appear to be so regretful that his quality of life is threatened. (In fact, he looks distastefully vigorous.) But regrets debilitate some people terribly. In another Guardian article — "Regret can seriously damage your mental health – here's how to leave it behind" — the author, Moya Sarner, wrote: "Regret can be all-consuming, and it can destroy lives. We can see it all around us, whether it is the man who cannot forgive himself for cheating on his first girlfriend and has not had a serious relationship in 30 years. Or the woman who is so tied up in wishing she’d had a child with her ex-partner, instead of breaking up with him, that she cannot find happiness in her current circumstances."
You and I
You and I have the opportunity to not simply fall prey to our regrets but clean up those we hold, and avoid those we might have taken on over the years to come — to live, as my friend said, so that we don't have any regrets remaining at our end.
Start By Stopping
I think this is a good way to begin: If you habitually push potential regrets away, or just stay too busy to deal with them, stop now.
I used to proclaim that I was without regret, that I felt regret was a waste of time. That was like boasting about good mental health. And it was bullshit, because I was bullshitting myself. Delve an inch below the surface of my psyche, and several iceberg-sized regrets lay waiting. We probably all have them. They include things I did in younger years, like prolonging doomed relationships and allowing newfound money to cause me to be insufferably full of myself. They also include things I didn't do, like taking university seriously, or pursuing, in my youth, certain young women of outstanding character and eye-watering charms. I also failed as a self-consumed 17 year old to tell my maternal grandmother in the weeks before her death how much she meant to me. And I later failed to attend adequately (in my opinion) to my sons when they were kids, to have enough fun with them, because I was too busy working, with some flimsy justification about making a good living for us all.
So to say, "no regrets"? No. Those are full-blown regrets, felt, comprehended (often through empathy), and — this is the kicker — cleaned up.
Repair, in my experience, is essential. It happens through adequate remorse, an understanding of how to act the next time (should we be granted the chance), clean up actions, and finally, the sensible putting to rest of what cannot be fixed.
When those steps are taken, regret is gift not to be pushed away. It is to be unwrapped and the learning extracted.
The Enormous Power of Regret-Avoidance
I think with age — and this can take a long time in some people (me, for example) — the other big gift we earn when it comes to regret is an understanding of how to avoid it. We start to know ourselves and the ways of the world.
In a post entitled, "5 Principles for Making Better Life Decisions," the profanity loving blogger and author Mark Manson describes the process:
"In making decisions, we’ll often consider the options available to us, imagine our future selves after choosing one of these options, and then try to feel how much regret we experience in this simulated future state. We then run this simulation again, choosing a different option, and compare that simulated state of regret/non-regret to the others."
He calls this ability "fucking amazing" and "incredibly useful." I agree. But he says we have to "use the most accurate and complete information available to us." That's where I think it's handy to be older and have been around the block a few times.
It really comes down to choosing the path of least regret. When you can see that path with some clarity, boy, you've got a powerful mental model at your disposal when a potentially life-changing decision comes along, as they constantly do.
Love & Regret (Avoided)
I have a personal example of that hard-won mental model proving its worth. After years of failed relationships, I was suddenly presented 13 years ago with the opportunity of a lifetime in the form of my wife. She wasn't my wife then, but when she suddenly appeared out of nowhere, I recognized the opportunity in an instant. (I like to think that was due to experience.) I saw her as the one person I absolutely had to woo with all the wooing skill that I had learned in my life plus more that needed to be conjured fast. I had to give it everything. Had I not, the regret would have been crippling. So I did, born on the strongest current of regret-avoidance I've ever experienced.
Thank you, deities of love and good fortune.
Power Tool: The Regret-Avoidance List
We can all get ahead of some of the life-affecting decisions we'll have to make by being proactive and making some of them now.
As a big fan of lists, I've been thinking of the Regret-Avoidance List. It's like a bucket list but better.
Sit with yourself. Think back on your life — what you've always wanted to experience and who you've wanted to be. Think ahead of the time you likely have left. Then start listing what you need to do to avoid having regrets at the end. Your list might have subheadings like these:
Things To Do
Things Not To Do
Ways To Spend Time
Ways Not To Spend Time
Things To Open To
Things To Close To
People To Get Closer To
People To Get Further From
Situations To Put in My Path
Situations To Clear From the Path
... and then, to sharpen the focus:
Absolutely Essential Experiences I Want to Have
Absolutely Essential Messes I Want to Clean Up
Yearnings are tied up in this list. What have you always yearned for? Yearnings not fulfilled will probably become regrets. Likewise, messes. They are usually relationship messes. I've found that lingering, regrettable messes can often be cleaned up with a phone call or a meeting, plus a heartfelt mea culpa followed by a simple apology. Powerful stuff. Nearly cost-free.
Interviewing ourselves also works. It might feel dumb, but it quickly starts to be revealing, if the interviewer asks good questions. "Tony, if you were going to die tomorrow, what regrets would you have?" and "When do plan on getting around to that trip to Nepal?" and "What about that falling out with [fill in person's name here] a few years ago? What are you going to do about that?" and "Who do you want to love with more love than now exists between you?" Ask hard questions. The interviewer knows them all. And the one being interviewed knows all the right answers. Those are the best interviews.
We Don't Do This Enough
When I look into my decision-making process, a healthy portion of regret-avoidance has probably been there since at least middle age and likely since high school. Before that, I don't know. But there's more of it now because of age. The older we get, we not only know (hopefully) how to not get burned by regrettable decisions, but the regret-avoidance window is narrowing, so there's more urgency to get things done because certain things we've always yearned to do might well be physically beyond us already. Or we might just get too tired. Or sick. Or dead.
I also think that we routinely allow other lesser considerations to overwhelm regret-avoidance, mainly through habit. I do it all the time. The cost in dollars, for example. Or the hassle/inconvenience factor. And, of course, the maybe-this-will-happen mill of interminably fearful dithering.
Friends of ours pulled themselves through this bog last year while trying to decide if they should rebuild a cherished cottage that had burned down. Age was a factor. Cost was a minor factor but it kept arising. There was all the time that would be consumed. And the inevitable hassles of a building project. All were factors that swirled for months. I kept thinking, "Don't do it." In the end, they did it. They are now in the midst of it. And in light of the most important consideration of all — the regret-avoidance one — it was the obvious decision all along. To not rebuild on that piece of land they love on that lake they love, and to not continue enjoying the woodsy summers, the friends, the making of memories, would probably have been an elephant-sized rest-of-life regret.
They taught me something. The first question/s we should all ask ourselves is this: If I don't do this, will I regret my decision, and will I be able to live with that regret?
And if the instant answer is, "Sure. I can live with that"... sleep on it a few times.
Nepal: A Regret I Don't Plan to Have
That brings me to Nepal. A few weeks ago, an old friend — photographer and mountaineer Pat Morrow — emailed me with an invitation to hike to the Everest base camp in Nepal. This can be done with tour groups. But it can't easily be done with a old friend who happens to be the first person to climb the seven highest peaks on the seven continents and is a hell of a nice guy I almost never see. We worked together at Equinox magazine in throughout the '80s. (The former managing editor of Equinox from those days, also invited by Pat, has likewise used his regret-avoidance tool and is coming along.)
Trekking in Nepal in your sixties can be seen by the doubting mind as full of costs and hassles and risks like altitude sickness. Or you can throw down the regret-avoidance card, which is what my wife and I did. (She did it first and most firmly.) There was really no choice after that.
Laying Down the Cudgel
I could go on. (I know, I've gone on.)
One final regret to mention: I'm gradually and effectively extinguishing the regret I will feel one day if I don't stop the habit of worrying. We all worry. Some of us more than others. I have worried too much in my life. That quota is full. It's a waste of life. My hope is to reduce worry to a small rump of its former self. So far so good.
Acceptance is our friend. It too is a way to avoid regret. When we accept things more easily, we lay down the cudgel, release our grip, and invite release by whatever is insistently wanting to worm its way into the vault of stored regrets and potential regrets.
As potential regrets fall away, the liberation is bracing. Expressions of love are made with greater frequency. Emotional litter is cleared away. Uncomfortable habits are jettisoned. (In my case, booze and meat are finally sent packing.) Experiences are scheduled. Sensible risks are taken to stay vital. Old yearnings are met. New pathways are explored.
Ah, that's not true. A selective few regrets are discreetly burnished and properly stored.