Forget regret (is a silly philosophy)
By Trish Tillman
I’ve noticed a rather concerning recent trend in the literature of pop-spirituality. Writers will speak of some questionable, possibly damaging decision they made in the past, and then say something like, “I don’t regret it, because I’ve made it a practice not to regret anything. Besides, my action was a manifestation of who I was at the time.” This kind of blasé “it’s all good” attitude is an extension of the pop-spirituality community’s aversion to saying that anything at all is bad—except for, maybe, not being a member of the pop-spirituality community.
This mentality makes me feel really, really uncomfortable.
I will illustrate why with a very small example. If you had procured a fake ID when you were sixteen and gotten a hideous, poorly executed Tweety Bird tattoo on your ankle, would present-day (now more mature and tasteful) you gaze at it with pride, as a memento of who you once were? No, you would have already gotten it covered up with better art or removed by a guy with a big laser. Similarly, most of us wouldn’t want to claim all the things we’ve said, music we’ve listened to, outfits we’ve worn, or people we’ve kissed in the past as aspects of ourselves in the present that still define us. Saying that you must, under any circumstances, feel positively about what you did in the past chains you to that past self.
My own mind jumps to my dumbass nineteen-year-old self, with bad skin on her chin from late-night fast-food runs and way too much makeup on her face. I was laboring under the illusion, at the time, that the proper way to put on makeup is to go for VOLUME. I have a lot of compassion for my nineteen-year-old self, and even find her endearing in certain ways. I was so incredibly naïve, and so desperate to prove that I was worldly and self-assured. Nonetheless, my first feeling when I look back is one of gratitude that I’m not still her, and not a fist bump to my college-age self for her cigarette-smoking, last-minute-assignment-completing ways.
“But this is so judgmental,” some might protest. “You don’t want people to go through life feeling bad about themselves, do you?”
I don’t. But I also want a life philosophy that allows for the possibility of real change, growth, and transformation. When we regret something, we redefine ourselves, in a way, by saying that we won’t (or at least that we shouldn’t) do the same thing in the future. People do change, sometimes quite dramatically.
Of course, I’m not advocating that people should beat themselves up over the things they’ve done, or focus obsessively on the past. But small amounts of regret can be very healthy.
The positive value of regret has actually been documented. The pioneering French sociologist Émile Durkheim, in his 1897 study on suicide rates in Europe, found that Catholic countries had a lower suicide rate than non-Catholic countries. He hypothesized that one reason for this was because Catholics benefited from the practice of confession: believers would acknowledge their sins to a priest, be granted absolution, and go on with their lives. In non-Catholic countries, on the other hand, individuals had no psychological mechanism for appropriating their past bad deeds or mistakes.
The philosophy of “forget regret” seems merciful at first glance, but is actually cruel.
Like the vapid adage “everything is for the best,” famously pilloried by Voltaire in his satire Candide, “forget regret” forces us to accept all the bad things done by us or to us in the name of some vaguely conceived, but not fully explained benevolent drift of the cosmos.
It’s true, a seeming mistake or misfortune can often turn out to be a blessing in disguise, but that doesn’t alter the fact that certain actions, viewed objectively at the time they were carried out, were bad choices. Furthermore, some events are positively tragic. Voltaire was partly inspired to write Candide after reading accounts of the horrific Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Contemplating the death toll of at least 40,000 people, he found the smug dismissiveness of “everything happens for the best” revolting.
The idea that mistakes and tragedies are part of some overarching plan is philosophically offensive. As Harold S. Kushner said in When Bad Things Happen to Good People, “Religious commitment to the supreme value of an individual life makes it hard for me to accept an answer that is not scandalized by an innocent person’s pain.”
The desire to acknowledge evil in the world is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Paradoxically, by saying that an event or action was evil, we are also empowered to move past it.
When we are in pain because of something that happened to us, or full of regret over something we did, forcing ourselves to put on a happy face about it feels like adding insult to injury. Wouldn’t it be more (dare I use the term) authentic to simply say, “Something bad happened. I eventually learned from it and moved on. But boy, did it suck at the time.”
About Trish Tillman
Trish Tillman is an adjunct professor of history, grad student, yoga teacher, and Gracie Jiu Jitsu purple belt in the Washington, DC metro area. She was nicknamed “Hateful Trish” by her jiu jitsu teammates, but is, generally, fairly good-natured while off the jiu jitsu mats. Check out more of her thoughts at http://postpostmodernpish.wordpress.com