Regret’s GIANT Assumption

March 27th, 2012

Author, Jodi Picoult wrote,

My dad used to say that living with regrets was like driving a car that only moved in reverse.

Living with regret slows you down and saps your energy. This is the second part in a series on regret. The first piece looks at some of the most common regrets. The third piece looks at the power of imagination to change the future. This article uncovers regret’s assumptions. Keep in mind that reversing in a car is essential at times. If you’ve hit a cul de sac of the heart, and don’t know why you’re stuck or what path brought you here, the view from the rear vision mirror can help you come unstuck. You just don’t want to drive long stretches in reverse; it’s not good for you or the car.

Regret is powerful if it makes you look back, realize that your past limited you, and set about living more fully in the present. This is how it worked for me with one nagging regret.

A little background.  I was a strong swimmer, born a Pisces, grew up in the water, fearless in the face of the fiercest waves. But when she was flailing in the water I froze. I guess I was 13 at the time, sitting on the beach and watching on while a teenage girl was drowning. I never understood why I didn’t move that day. I could easily have rescued her from the water but for some reason I was paralyzed. I can’t tell you how much I have regretted that moment over the years.  Even though the girl was fine, rescued by someone else, I was wracked with guilt and shame for years.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I learnt to accept that experience for what it was. I joined a Facebook page related to the school I attended and saw a photo of myself as a 13 year old. Regret turned instantly to compassion. I felt the need to apologize, not to the girl so much as to myself as a 13 year old boy who was doing the best he could. “I let you down. I was supposed to look after you. I let you drown in guilt. You were just a kid. It wasn’t your fault.”

The 13 year old me was trapped in time, and once I let him go, I began the process of transforming guilt into growth. When you are at peace with yourself, you are a collage of every age and stage you have ever been. The you of right now is the curator of all that has gone before, ready to unleash ever more integrated manifestations of yourself in the future. Becoming is a lifelong process, at least.

Healthy regret gives you a way to reflect on the past and make different choices. Unhealthy regret prevents you from living in the present because you are still carrying the past, like a monkey on your back. It’s like the Zen story about two monks who came across a woman struggling to cross a stream. The first monk wanted to walk on without helping. The second monk immediately helped the woman by lifting her up and carrying her across the stream. Following this incident the two monks walked on in silence. After a while the first monk, unable to contain his anger any longer, said to the second, “You know it is against our vows to touch a woman, why did you lift her up and carry her?”

The second monk replied, “Because she needed help. But I only carried her briefly. You on the other hand are STILL carrying her. You haven’t let her go yet.”

Having a healthy relationship with the past is part of being fully alive and awake in the present. This includes an occasional dalliance with disappointment. Just don’t let it become a lifelong romance.

Regret is based on a GIANT assumption; that if something in the past had been different, then things would have been better. This is one of the questions raised in Stephen King’s latest novel 22 11 63. It’s a time travel story about a man who travels back in time to try and prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He discovers this magical possibility from the owner of a diner who has been traveling back to the 50s to buy cheap meat for his burgers. But the diner owner convinces Jake to go back for nobler purposes. Jake discovers that time is not as straightforward as that. As he says,

The past is obdurate. It doesn’t want to change.

Even if you could prevent something awful from happening, this change would set another sequence of events into motion. You don’t know for sure that this would create a better future.

This is regret’s GIANT assumption. You think life would have been better IF you did or didn’t do something. You don’t know that for sure. What you DO know is that life is a choice right now. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose true and lasting happiness.

It’s not that choices from the past are insignificant. They just aren’t AS significant as we often imagine.

The problem is that we usually make decisions based on a comparison. This OR that. Therein lies the seed of regret. What will make you happier? This job or that? This partner or that? This location or that? This amount of money or that? We forget that life meanders rather than taking a direct route, and happiness doesn’t come with any guarantees.

Consider this scenario. It’s hard to imagine regretting winning the lottery? On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine NOT regretting an accident that led to a serious injury?

Recent research questions these assumptions about what brings happiness. It suggests that one year after winning the lottery, most people are no happier than they were before they won. You might even regret winning the lottery because now you are watching the markets like a hawk, and people are harassing you for loans. At the other end of the spectrum, one year after becoming a paraplegic, many people are no less happy than they were before the event. Maybe you don’t regret the accident because you have discovered new joys and inner strength.

This scenario challenges regret’s assumptions. If one person won the lottery and another person became a paraplegic on the same day and at that time they were equally happy, chances are that one year later they would still be equally happy. Because happiness is an inside job, and has less to do with circumstances than we imagine. Regret fixates on events, takes a single story and freezes it in time. Lasting happiness flows with time and constantly rewrites stories.

Think about in terms of relationships. The day your partner leaves you may feel like the worst day of your life. Talk to some people who have been through this experience a year later, and they will feel that it was the best thing that could have happened. We tend to magnify the significance of events, when in reality they have less impression on our happiness than we imagine.

Regret jumps to conclusions. Contentment stands in the middle of open questions.

If only we could take more of a “wait and see” approach to life, we would suffer so much less. No event is an end point. No incident is the last word on life. Allow life to ebb and flow all around you. Whatever you are going through right now is not the end of the story. There’s always more. There will be mysterious twists and turns that you can’t even predict.

A spiritual teacher was once asked by his students, “Why are you so happy? You are surrounded by suffering and loss. Why don’t you regret such loss?” The teacher picked up a crystal glass and said, “I love this glass. I love the way it sounds when I touch it. I love the way it glistens in the sun. And yet one day, no doubt, my elbow will knock it off of the table and it will break. I love this glass because I know that it’s already broken and yet perfect at the same time.”

Your life, all of it, glistens in the sun and chimes with the sound of acceptance. It’s beautiful even with the cracks. The more you come to terms with your brokenness, you don’t need to pretend you are anything other than you who you are in each moment. When you have accepted that each situation is what it needs to be, you stop resisting reality. As the Tao te Ching says, “If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you try to hold on to.” Regret tries to bottle disappointment. Nostalgia tries to bottle happiness. Both are acts of denial.  Let life come and go around you with humble curiosity and open ended wonder for your life is pure crystal, fragile and beautiful, cracked and perfect, all at the same time.

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  1. [...] claim and reframe stories from the past into the most powerful and compelling script ever written. Part two unmasks regret’s [...]

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  3. Spider says:

    Thanks so much for this! I really needed this.  

  4. Virginia Urbach says:

    Your blog always touches my heart, it’s like an Angel hovering over me to read it. Thank you .

  5. Just what I needed to read today. THANK YOU.

  6. Israel says:

    Wonderful post… amazing.. unique., it just gave me inspiration, and feel comfortable to read all this messages, and look back and for what I been through in life.. and it’s true.. it is like an injection of positive way  to my situation in life.. !!

  7. Jack Grabon says:

    Very well written post.  It really made me stop to think.  Living in regret is about not seeing the bigger picture, being immersed in what just happened essentially. Looking in a rear view mirror can be helpful to move us forward, so long as we’re not constantly in reverse as you put it.  I think you’re right on about the assumption that everything would be dandy if we could change this or that from our past, not realizing that that change in course would likely lead to regrets of a different kind. 

  8. Camille says:

    WowI once again I  feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to read such a beautiful, heart touching article. This website is absolutely amazing. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all tha you do.

  9. For a long time, I suffered from feeling the regret of all the things I missed in life and all the horrible experiences that I had gone through.  I thought I had just lost my life, but I am beginning to let those things go and see my life for all that it is.  Great blog post you wrote (and like you, I had one of those moments where I froze and someone was dying).