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!