THE UTILITY OF REGRET
There is a common adage that many are encouraged to live by – “Live a life without regrets”. Not only is that not possible, it is often not very helpful. A more helpful approach to regret is to use regrets as a catalyst to make sure you are living this moment and this life to its fullest.
When I moved from Boulder, Colorado to San Diego, California in 2011 I had much hesitation. As time went on, a heavy regret started setting in. There were many things I missed about Boulder that San Diego did not seem to have in such abundance (big mountains, great trails, open space, traffic-less roads to bike on, etc.). I missed the friends I had made and the people I worked with over the previous decade. I began to regret not doing more back country snow shoeing and snowboarding. I regretted not trail running, mountain biking or rock climbing as much as I could have. I regretted not doing more meditation retreats or spending more time with the people that meant so much to me. The regret piled on and left me feeling hopeless, stuck and overwhelmed.
Instead of “Living a life without regrets”, the only emotions I seemed to have access to were depression, sadness and regret. For a while, I was stuck in the regret, stuck in the past. I wanted to move back – I looked back at the past and what I had then was more appealing than where I was now. I was only looking back. I was not looking at my feet, feeling the weight of my clothes on my back, not hearing the birds or smelling the roses…
“Dada! I’m awake!!” My daughter exclaimed from the other room – it woke me up this time. I’d learned all about mindfulness and contemplative psychotherapy over the last decade. It had been my daily job for nearly that long. But practicing it in my own life was a different story. “I’ll be right there,” I replied back to her.
It all switched when I realized that all I could do was work as best I could to not regret this moment. To not wash away my experience of and relationship with my daughter, and the rest of my life, with a very real emotion. I committed to use my past regret to inspire me to action.
I started running at the beach most mornings! I would regret not doing that if and when I left San Diego. The regret turned on its head instead of weighing me down it began to hold a lot of potential energy. The question came to mind, “What do I need to do now to enjoy and experience this place, these people, and this time to its fullest? What do I NOT want to regret if and when I leave this place?” Well, I would regret not getting to the beach more often and getting into surfing. I would regret not getting back into trail running and doing some night runs by the beach or in the mountains. I would regret not connecting with and creating my own recovery community and mindfulness community.
Regret can be an intense emotion and is often painful to experience. But if we are able to stay with it long enough and learn from it, it can bear fruit that can help us live a better today. It is something that can dramatically change our lives for the better if we allow ourselves to be touched by it. Our pain, neurosis, joy and freedom are all wrapped up in one messy and beautiful package. To throw any of it out is to not value ourselves and our experiences in a way that wakes us up. Regret is something we can use as a catalyst to make the most of this life, to make the most of each day and each interaction with each person we come into contact with.
I regretted not being more present. And now, I am more present. I’m able to look back on my past fondly because I’ve found a way to use it to inspire how I’m living now.