When I teach the part of Plato’s Apology where Socrates says that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (38a), I ask students to engage in their own Socratic examination to explain whether they think this statement is true. I ask them to try to think of counter-examples of unexamined lives that are worth living or examined lives that aren’t.
Often students will say that you should examine your life because it would allow you to live without regrets. They sometimes say this as if living without regrets is the real goal, and living an examined life is merely a means of doing so.
My students are representative of the larger culture, one that embraces the philosophy of YOLO and no regrets. Everyone wants to avoid regrets. Regrets gnaw at the soul. You play a game of “I should have…” and “Why didn’t I?” The past becomes a battleground of desires. Regret can incapacitate people as they face the future.
At least this seems to be the popular conception.
The assumption is always that regrets are all bad and should be avoided.
But are regrets always bad? I don’t think so.
Being Thankful for Regrets
Yesterday we celebrated our Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States. One popular tradition is to enumerate what you’re thankful for. I’m thankful for lots of things. Of course, I’m thankful for my family and friends and my cats. I’m thankful that I have a fulfilling career and no major health issues. I’m thankful that I have neither the greed nor the need to go “Black Friday” shopping today. I’m thankful that the new Star Wars movie is coming out soon!
Also, I’m thankful for my regrets. Like most people, I have plenty. I regret that I haven’t done more international travel and that I haven’t done more charitable giving and volunteering. I regret never figuring out this whole physical fitness thing. I regret that I saw Star Wars: Episode I seven times in the theater. I regret voting for Ralph Nader in 2000. I regret that I didn’t spend more time with my mom.
I don’t think regrets have to be the soul-crushing thing they’re made out to be; you don’t have to exterminate them entirely to have a healthy life. I also don’t think you need to go in the direction of some Nietzscheans and existentialists to say that you have to take ownership of regrets and affirm them, because they’ve made you who you are. There is, as Buddhists would say, a middle way between these extremes.
The Middle Way between Regret-Extermination and Regret-Affirmation
The regret-extermination route is probably impossible for anyone with the ability to examine their own life. Unless you never engage in introspection, unless you have a super human ability to avoid all mistakes, or unless you possess an inhuman resistance to personal growth and change, I see no way to avoid regrets. The desire to avoid something unavoidable is irrational and unhealthy. Like it or not, thinking and changing beings such as ourselves are stuck with regrets. Seeking to eliminate them is an unrealistic goal that represents a rejection of human imperfection and growth.
|Amusing tattoo from We're the Millers (2013)|
The other extreme is to affirm one’s regrets as a necessary ingredient that makes up who you are. In effect, this exterminates the regret by affirming it: “Yes, I affirm this regret, but it makes me who I am, so it’s not really a regret.” This is healthier than the other extreme, since it doesn’t rely on outright rejection, but I do wonder why there’s such a premium on oneself, warts and all. My regrets may make me who I am, but why is who I am so important?
My regrets are important precisely because they allow me to admit that I’m not perfect and that I’m constantly changing. Wishing that the past had been different is not a rejection of myself, but an acceptance of what I am: a thinking, growing creature, but above all, an imperfect one.
The regret-extermination route says, “Regrets must be eliminated to have a good life.” The regret-affirmation route says, “Regrets must be affirmed to the extent that they cease to be regrets, since they make you what you are today.” The middle way says, “Regrets are unavoidable and they make you what you are, but regrets are part of a healthy examined life.”
An Examined, Imperfect Life Includes Regret
I really do have all the regrets listed above: not having done more to help others, not having spent more time with my mom, having seen Episode I so many times…
I can’t change the past, so I don’t let these regrets haunt me or grind me down. But I do have them. They make me who I am, even if I would maybe be a better person without some of them, especially without Jar-Jar haunting my dreams. Contrary to the existentialists, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily all that great about who I happen to be, which is in need of dramatic affirmation.
I’m thankful for my regrets because they both make me who I am and remind me that I’m an imperfect, thinking being constantly in flux, capable of change and hopefully growth.
Here I stand; I could have done other. It’s all part of living an examined, imperfect life. Such a life will include regrets. And that’s okay.