Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been”. – Kurt Vonnegut
It has been said, in life people regret most what they didn’t. Those regrets of inactivity have been proven scientifically. Regrets of action are based on something that actually occurred. While regrets of inaction could be based on regret stemming from an endless variety of regretful possibilities. According to a recent massive study of regret: “people’s biggest regrets are a reflection of where in life they see they see tangible prospects for change, growth and renewal”. (What We Regret Most… and Why)
Reality itself is based on change. In life, change comes about through the choices made. Some choices turn out badly and those lead to regret. Thoughts turn to regret based on “should have”, or “could have”. The scientific analysis pointed to the biggest regrets are echoes of ones stage in life. For instance, according to the study, the five things people overall regretted most (in descending order): Education, Career, Romance, Parenting, Self. While younger people’s five biggest regrets were (in descending order): Romance, Friends, Education, Leisure, Self. These choices are based on opportunity for change. Even at ninety years old a person can go back to school, but the opportunities for romance are pretty limited. And when in school a person could have: changed major, worked harder, stayed in school, learned more and partied less. The strongest regrets come about where there is the greatest chance for change.
Regrets of things left undone, or untried are based on self-blame. You could have done things differently. You chose the easy way out. Stressful events happened because of your choices. This regretful self-blaming can lead to deep feelings of guilt and can possibly contribute to depression. But this is where the negative energy of regret can become a catalyst for personal growth. By recognizing the emotionally draining impacts of regret, a person can flip the script on the negativity of living with regret. Let go of those things you never did. Leave behind the guilt stemming from the limitless options you could have chosen. Those paths are shadows. They never existed and never will. Realize the unreality of the unchosen, and start today to grow towards the positive light of improved self-esteem and move on towards self-actualization.
There is a famous Zen koan about two monks which illustrates the value of letting go. Two monks approached a stream. There was a young woman who was trying to cross the surging river. Monks are not supposed to think lustfully of women, or to even touch them. But the older monk lifted up the young woman and put her on his back. The younger monk followed behind noticing the curve of the woman’s leg, the arch of her back. Once they were on the other side of the stream, the monk sat the woman down. After a few hours of silently fuming, the younger monk tried to chastise the older monk, “You know our vows say we are not supposed to touch women. Why did you do that?” The older monk turned and said, “I sat her down hours ago, why are you still carrying her?”
Regret should push a person towards corrective behavior. If you are a procrastinator, change that in yourself. If you are afraid to take chances, start small and take a little chance. If you regret not learning how to …, start learning today. Life is also about renewal. The famous French writer Andre Maurois once said, “death transforms life into destiny.” Until that final moment, you have the potential to change regret into renewal and delight. Regrets are based on counterfactual reasoning. Counterfactual is a term used in logic. It means – a conditional statement the first clause of which expresses something contrary to fact, as “If I had known.” This is the very root of regret based on actions not taken. Once you are down the road of life, like the older monk in the zen koan, put down those thoughts of potential regret, and live vigorously. Change. Grow. Renew.