I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.
You know that phrase, “No regrets?” It’s usually followed by, “bro,” and offered up after a crushing loss or a colossally dumb decision. The sentiment is a good one. It’s meant to push the receiver out of maudlin self-pity, pity that might freeze them in place, cementing a negative and self-defeating posture that makes envisioning a brighter future impossible. Whatever happened (or didn’t happen), the advisor is saying, is just a blip in a long, fruitful life.
Michel Vaucaire wrote words to that effect made famous in the 1960s by Edith Piaf.
Non, rien de rien Non, je ne regrette rien Ni le bien qu'on m'a fait Ni le mal, tout ça m'est bien égal
I don’t care, she says, about anything – neither the good nor the bad that was done to me, the sorrows or the pleasures – because today is a new day. In her case it had nothing to do with an attitude shift from within to face the future with optimism. Rather, she met a new guy.
Funny, how many times she repeats “Non,” as if to push away any lingering trauma by the force of her voice. In Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s characters comments on someone protesting too much. Maybe Edith is covering up the truth – that she’s afraid.
We all deal with regret, the shoulda-woulda-coulda’s of our lives, the roads not taken, that fear that kept us frozen in place when we might have acted.
Recently, I read a stunning piece in the New York Times titled A 63-Year-Old Runner Changed the Way I Think About Regret. I realize there might be a paywall for this article if you are not a subscriber, so I’ll summarize the salient points. The writer focusses on long distance Japanese runner named Mariko Yugeta who holds the world record in her age group. Not only that, she is the only woman over sixty to run a marathon in under three hours – and that means she’s breaking her own records as she ages.
I’m not usually all that impressed by speed and record breaking in and of itself. But what interests me is that Mariko dropped out of a promising athletic career in her prime to raise a family and pursue her career. Her regrets are not going for it when she could and letting time pass.
Oddly for her, regret acts not as an obstacle, but as fuel. She told the NYT, “I don’t think the feeling of regret is a negative emotion. What’s negative are thoughts like, ‘I can’t run fast anymore’ or ‘I’m too old to do this,’ and I think that it’s an entirely positive way to live, to use any regrets you might have as motivation to achieve a goal.”
This week on Facebook, many of my friends have been posting an early (or first) headshot, those 8×10 black and white glossies we used to send out in unbendable cardboard envelopes to presenters, competitions, the newspapers. I posted one from my late 20s when I first moved to Houston. All the studio shots taken of me up to that point looked forced, almost noire-ish. This one was taken by a friend, outdoors in the courtyard of my beloved apartment on Allen Parkway. I look natural, happy, just right.
It’s a long time ago, as the bangly rhinestones and lacy top attest, but I remember so well the eager, intense, moody girl I was. I had no clue about how talented I was, how superb a flute player I was and smart, too. I thought the cruelty of the world and the heartbreak of loss was all about me, something I brought on myself. I internalized my failures and reflected them back on how I saw myself. And gee whiz, what a beautiful woman I was. And I don’t say that with any ego or conceit, just amazement – and regret – that I wasn’t more fully aware of my gifts, that I couldn’t enjoy them while they lasted.
Curiously, what we usually regret are not actions taken, but opportunities missed. That being said, studies show that ignoring our regrets and filling our minds with only positive feelings can backfire on us. Too much Pollyanna, and we stifle growth and learning. Yes, it’s more mentally healthy to be optimistic, but looking into the eyes of that younger version of myself, I wonder why I wasn’t filled with more self assurance and belief that things would work out for me. Regret, in this instance, causes me to move more easily and flexibly towards risk and expand how I see and define myself.
That’s evidenced in a singular decision I made to ask for a leave of absence from my job to walk the Te Araroa in New Zealand. Sadly, while my manager granted me a leave, she waited until I returned to eliminate my position. It was one of the most painful losses of my life and I am still filled with regret that I didn’t protect myself better. I should tell you that three years later, it makes me laugh how cliche the whole affair was. Taking that time for myself was one of the most empowering decisions of my life no matter what happened as a result at one job. It was a decision that changed me for the better in ways I’m still coming to understand.
There’s more about it in the first episode of Blissful Hiker Podcast.
Regrets and “living in the past” can be double-edged swords, however. We kick ourselves for things we didn’t do, we mourn lives not lived – the movie Everything Everywhere All At Once touches on these themes in a hilarious manner – and yet we try to avoid regrets at all costs by making the perfectly correct choice, even though we’re limited by the information in front of us at the time and the lens through which we see the world.
The Arizona Trail was a living laboratory in this kind of thinking. Thru-hikes tend to amplify our feelings of FOMO – the Fear Of Missing Out – and therefor fill us with regret on an almost daily basis. The enormous distance that has to be covered, coupled with fellow hikers who may be stronger, faster, younger and clocking way more miles can make one uncharacteristically competitive. It’s not simply about pushing the body to its extreme to keep up, it’s a feeling like your entire experience doesn’t match up with their’s.
In this case, regret played a curious role, reminding me of the times I truly did miss out because I’d held onto a rigid belief that a thru-hike only counts if every single inch is walked. Counts to whom? one might ask. For the first time, I happily skipped sections I knew I didn’t have time to walk or found utterly boring, knowing what I missed could be walked next season – or not at all if something better came up.
The odd thing is that I “finished” earlier than expected and came home sooner, back to other activities I love – hosting classical concerts, interviewing musicians and playing my flute. Instead of freezing in my tent as winter weather moved in on the repetitive slog of the Kaibab Plateau, I celebrated Easter with family and friends.
While Mariko Yugeta used regret over the past to fuel her success today, she does not live full time in that negativity. “It’s a waste of time to think about days gone by,” she told the NYT. “What’s important is the here and now, and the future. How can you improve yourself in the days to come?”Perhaps growing older softens regret because we know time is limited and we eventually have to choose a path to walk, leaving alternative lives behind.
Do I have regrets? Sure, even about the AZT and jumping ahead, because I wonder if I might have seen more flowering cactus in the desert, bonded more deeply with hikers when the snow returned or had some other experience. And yet, I don’t dwell on it, because I savored every last drop of what I could physically accomplish at this time of my life and with only six weeks to do it.
And besides, those tiny regretful voices might be the ones that inspire me to go on the next hike with an open mind and heart, and to anticipate that some days will be tough and negative feelings will come, but there will be so many amazing and unexpected encounters, I won’t have time to regret my choices.