Lately I’ve been watching Friday Night Lights, which is a well-crafted if ordinary show about a small Texas town and its obsession with football. In recent episodes, I’ve heard several characters encouraging each other with the phrase “no regrets”.
I regularly hear friends say the same thing, to each other and about their own pasts. In fact, “living one’s live without regrets” seems to be a popular cultural trend at the moment.
On the one hand, I applaud this update on “seize the day”. You should ask that boy out or quit the job you hate or travel to India if that’s what you really want to do. And if promising yourself “no regrets” helps, then get on with it.
On the other hand, I want to examine the idea of having no regrets a little more closely. Is it really a good thing?
For example, all of us have hurt others along the way, intentionally or otherwise. You can’t live in society without doing that. When you do hurt somebody, isn’t it appropriate to regret that?
This question of regrets seems to coincide with the philosophical notion that “everything happens for a reason”. That latter phrase is a modern salve, isn’t it? It’s also a get-out-of-misery-free card. If everything happens for a reason, then whatever befalls you is out of your hands, and therefore not regrettable.
But, then, regrets are a weight. They’re ballast that we’re eager to jettison. Is the theory of “no regrets” that you can stop regretting something but still learn from it? As in, “well, I invested that ten million dollars poorly, but I don’t regret it because I’ve learned not to invest in MySpace”.
But isn’t rejecting regret kind of a cop out? As in, “I made this mistake, but I’m not going to bear the emotional impact I caused?”
Is there a healthy level of regret? Should we regret big mistakes for a long time, and little mistakes for a short while, or vice versa? What role might regret or contrition have in our evolutionary makeup? That is, why did we evolve a capacity to regret?
These are incomplete thoughts and fragmentary questions. What do you think about having regrets, or having none?