Take a moment to think about your life. Have you ever done anything you regret? Silly question, right? Who hasn’t? If you google “life without regrets,” you’ll find scores of self-help, motivational ‘be all you can be’ websites all offering to share with you “10 secrets to live your life without regrets.” Rest assured, this article will be absolutely nothing like that. Instead, I want to bring an existentialist perspective to regret and see if we can actually learn something about this emotion.
I. Defining Regret
The first thing to clarify is that regret always concerns an action you either took or didn’t take. You can’t regret something that happened (or didn’t happen) to you in a passive capacity. You can lament the fact that it happened, complain about it, even spiral into depression over it, but you can’t regret it. Nor can you regret that someone suffered as a result of some (in)action of yours. You can feel sorry that they suffered, wish that it hadn’t turned out that way, sympathise with them, etc., but you can’t regret it. The important point here is that regret is always reflexive, by which I mean it always concerns a specific action (or inaction) taken (or not taken) by the individual experiencing the regret.
When we experience regret, it typically surfaces in expressions something like the following: “I regret that I did action X,” or equally, “I regret that I didn’t do action X.” (From here on out, for the sake of expediency, I will restrict myself to the positive form, but what I have to say applies equally to the negative) What exactly do I mean when I say I regret an action, though? Well, I certainly mean that I wish I hadn’t done it. If I could put myself back in the same situation, this second time around I would do something different, or perhaps refrain from acting at all. Fair enough. However, it also implies something else. It implies that I wish I weren’t me now.
Let’s look at a concrete example. Imagine that I lost my temper and shouted at a friend yesterday, in a way that I now recognise they didn’t deserve. I acknowledge that I was completely in the wrong, and as a result, I regret my action. Yes, with my regret, I am saying that I wish I hadn’t shouted at my friend, but in feeling this, I’m necessarily also saying that I wish I weren’t the person who had shouted at my friend. In other words, I wish I weren’t the person I am.
At this point, it is tempting to object that to wish one hadn’t acted a certain way is different from wishing that one weren’t the person one is. The temptation to reason like this stems from the mistaken belief that ‘you’ are somehow different from your actions. This is classic Cartesian/religious dualism that doesn’t stand up to even the slightest scrutiny. What is this mythical ‘you’ that somehow resists identification with your body and the actions you carry out as it? This ‘you’ that somehow transcends the body and its actions such that it can look upon them and judge them from a ‘safe’ distance. No, if we are to be anything, we must be whatever that is, fully immersed in the world. If you aren’t your body, and by extension, your physical actions, you aren’t anything.
The Sickness unto Death
The 19th century existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, contributes to our discussion here in his short book The Sickness unto Death. The eponymous sickness Kierkegaard is referring to turns out to be despair. Now, despair always appears to be over some contingent, external situation. For example, I might despair over the fact that I didn’t become Caesar (Kierkegaard’s example), or that I didn’t get that promotion at work (a slightly more contemporary example). However, the interesting (and relevant for us) thing about despair is that it also has a deeper, more personal meaning. Despair over the fact that I didn’t become Caesar is necessarily, and more importantly, despair over the person I am. In wishing that I were Caesar, I am also wishing that I weren’t this non-Caesar person who I currently am.
This, somewhat hidden, implication makes despair a particularly noxious affliction. Rather than simply concerning external goals and hopes, it goes right to the heart of the individual (as all of Kierkegaard’s philosophy does), with a literal rejection of oneself. Could there be anything more toxic, more disempowering, than this? No matter what you do now, no matter what actions you might take or decisions you might make, the fact that they will all spring from a source you have rejected robs them of meaning and value. A woeful state to be in, indeed. No wonder Kierkegaard called it the sickness unto death.
Another interesting thing about despair, something which also distinguishes it from a physical ailment, is that if you fall into despair just once, then it is true that you have been in despair your whole life. This may seem counter-intuitive. Say I go to the doctor for a regular check-up and get a clean bill of health. One week later I go back in with a sore throat, and she tells me I have a cold. Now, it would be ridiculous to say that because I have a cold now, I must have, not just had a cold last week, but had one my whole life. Indeed, Kierkegaard would agree. However, despair is not like a physical illness, that is to say, something accidental to my being. Rather, despair, as we have seen, goes to the core of who I am. Breaking in some Heideggarian terminology, we might say despair is ontological, as opposed to ontic. So, there is nothing wrong with breaking my life into artificial ‘temporal slices’ with regard to my getting physically sick. I can meaningfully talk about last week when I didn’t have a cold, and now when I do. This is because catching a cold is an ontic event; it doesn’t affect who I am as a conscious, experiencing subject. On the other hand, despair, being an ontological affliction (we called it earlier a “rejection of oneself”) goes straight to the heart of who I am. Think of this as changing something essential about your personhood, something vastly more consequential than catching a cold.
————— Detour – Time and Temporality —————
Kierkegaard distinguishes between these two terms; ‘time’ and ‘temporality.’ Time is infinite succession, which is what occurs in the natural (non-conscious) world. In time; i.e. in the natural world, there is no past, present, or future because there is no ‘special’ moment from which these temporal ‘sites’ can appear; that is, from which the infinite succession can be broken up into the three dimensions. Instead we have the instant, an abstract, temporal ‘point’ without duration; what Kierkegaard calls a “passing by” in The Concept of Anxiety.
At the other extreme, we have the eternal; that is, an annulled succession. There are no instants here because there is no movement, no temporal ‘flow.’ Importantly, for Kierkegaard, the present, taken on its own, is also the eternal because it can be defined as a moment without a past or future. This is why there is no present in time; i.e. because the present is the eternal.
Now, this setup opens the door for something interesting. There is no present in time, but time has its own ‘parody’ of the present; i.e. with the instant. In Kierkegaard’s words: “the instant signifies the present as a something that has no past and no future…” (The Concept of Anxiety; p.65) Since we’ve already established the bond between eternity and the present, we now have a ‘place’ where eternity (as present) and time (in the instant) can intersect. The consequence of this meeting, where we have on the one hand, time as the pure ‘flow’ or ‘movement’ of infinite succession, and its opposite, eternity as static, pure presence, produces a present within a flow; that is, a present ‘surrounded by’ temporal ‘horizons’ of past and future.
Now, if I read this as a description of temporality (‘lived time’ with a past, present, and future) in a religious book (actually I did, all of Kierkegaard’s books are religious), I would slam it for being abstract, metaphysical gibberish. However, what we are trying to do here is not ‘explain’ what temporality is, nor are we fudging over the gaps in our understanding by appealing to gods (or just one really big one); instead, we are merely trying to paint a descriptive picture that allows us to gain some understanding into what time in the context of a lived human life might mean. The bottom line then of the above picture is that time as we know and love it; i.e. a ‘flow’ separable into past, present, and future, doesn’t exist in the natural world; i.e. a world without conscious subjects. There are still events of course, but no meaningful order, direction, or dimensionality to them. This is what temporality supplies, and it only arises through, and as, consciousness (which can be loosely understood as the ‘eternal’ in my abridged rendering of Kierkegaard’s narrative).
————— End of Detour – Merge with Care —————
Okay, we left off with despair having an ontological effect on me; i.e. an effect that changes me in such a way that once I fall into it, I discover that I have always been in despair. Now we are in a position to see why this might be the case. Temporality (‘lived’ time) only arises through consciousness or ‘subjectivity’ (this is Kierkegaard’s term, and it refers to the individual subject as a concrete human being. It is absolutely NOT to be confused with the subjective/objective distinction as in opinion vs. fact). Now, if temporality arises from subjectivity, and subjectivity is affected by despair, then falling into despair just once means that all of one’s temporal existence ‘immediately’ becomes affected. The expression ‘last week,’ being a reference to the past and therefore meaningless outside of a subjectivity whose last week it is, is now the last week of a subjectivity, and therefore a temporality, tainted by despair.
It might help to think of temporality as a long furrow full of water stretching away into infinity in either direction (which obviously doesn’t mean that you have lived, and will live, forever; rather, it means that eternity springs into existence fully formed, as it were, the moment a conscious subject arises from the non-conscious natural world). Catching a cold changes the colour of the bottom of the furrow at that section. When you ‘look’ back at that period, it appears differently coloured thanks to the coloured base. The rest of the furrow remains unaffected. Falling into despair, however, is like dumping a load of dye into the water itself. No matter where the dye gets dumped, it spreads throughout the entire expanse of water changing it at every point, both past and future.
II. The Unavoidability of Regret
The parallels between Kierkegaard’s despair and our regret are obvious. In regret, I wish that I hadn’t shouted at my friend yesterday. This also necessarily means that I wish I weren’t a person who had shouted at my friend; i.e. I wish I weren’t the person who I am now. It is this which means that regret affects me in the core of my being, like despair. However, there is a difference, and it concerns the underlying reasons for despair and regret. While both are a rejection, or denial, of the person one is, the rejection in despair is ultimately a rejection of the relationship with God in which the self is grounded; that is to say, it is a rejection of oneself based on an erroneous understanding of who one is in the present. Acknowledging this relationship therefore dissolves the despair. Yes, as soon as one falls into despair, one has always been in despair, but as soon as one rises above it, one has always risen above it. Regret, on the other hand, is a little more complicated because in this, the rejection of oneself is based on a contingent event in the past. While the condemnation of the self (the regret) is the dumping of the dye into the water of my furrow, my shouting at my friend (the event) is the changing of the colour of the bottom of a section of the furrow. This means that, like catching a cold, it only affects a specific part of my furrow. However, the flipside of this is that it affects it forever. I can never erase this event; rather, I must carry it with me for the rest of my life. Given that this event is the reason for my regret, and I can never erase the event, this presents serious problems when it comes to overcoming regret.
But it gets worse. Not only is overcoming regret problematic, I can’t reasonably expect to get through my life without accumulating any. Recall those motivational websites from the introduction? The ones promising to impart the wisdom of how to live a life without regrets? Unfortunately, living without regrets is pure fantasy. The only way to live a life without regrets is not to start one in the first place. It is a cliché that humans make mistakes; we say and do things that we later wish we hadn’t. This is just a part of what it means to be a human being. Denying this in pursuit of some self-help fantasy is foolish. Even if you are really, really good at living; you “live in the moment,” “follow your dreams,” “visualise your goals,” and follow a hundred other motivational tips, regret has two tricks up its sleeve to catch even people like you. The ‘tricks’ are tricky precisely because regret doesn’t have to do anything. You do its work for it by living.
Trick 1: We all grow, we all learn, we all change. This is what living is. The person you are now is different from the person you were two years ago, five years ago, ten years ago. Actions that accorded with your values and beliefs at that time, and therefore didn’t present any problems at that time, may now, for the person you have become with the values and beliefs you now have, cause regret. Even if you manage to always perform actions in line with your contemporary values, I would be very surprised if those actions also happened to line up with all of your future values.
Trick 2: Living entails an inability to understand perfectly what is happening while it is happening. This is why we say that hindsight is 20/20. This curious ‘blindness’ to things as they are taking place means that regret often doesn’t surface until later when you are reflecting on your actions. Another form regret can take in this category is when an action of yours produces unintended consequences. Although, you didn’t deliberately will it, the simple fact that you were the cause of whatever unpleasantness resulted, can be enough to legitimately arouse regret. Yet another example is that of the missed opportunity. Not only is it almost guaranteed that no matter how astute you are, you are going to miss opportunities or pass them by without even knowing they were there (until after it is too late to do anything about it), many of the decisions you make in life are either/or in nature, that is, between options that are mutually exclusive. Some not insignificant percentage of these will be decisions where you want to choose more than one option. The very fact that life extracts a choice from you is sufficient to create missed opportunities, and therefore regret.
You stand before a gateway. ‘Moment’ it is called. The gateway stands in the middle of a path which stretches out into eternity in both directions. Given this, would it not be true then, that whatever can walk upon this path, must have already done so innumerable times prior to the Moment, and must also do so innumerable times afterwards? This is the question posed to Zarathustra by the spirit of gravity, which manifests as a creature half dwarf, half mole, in the book Nietzsche considered his finest, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The idea is known as the doctrine of eternal recurrence and basically says that since time is infinite, every moment in your life has already occurred, and will recur, an infinite number of times. Indeed, your entire life, exactly as you have lived it up to now, has already occurred an infinite number of times in the past, and will re-occur an infinite number of times in the future. This is just one of the consequences of having an eternity to play with.
Less important than the plausibility of the idea though, is your reaction to it. Would it make you shudder and weep to know that everything that has happened in your life, the terrible as well as the good, has been, and will be, repeated for eternity, or would you embrace this ‘truth’ and love life even more? That is the real point of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. He is asking you, not just to accept your life, but to love it; to will that every moment in it recur for eternity. And not just the high points. This is no cherry-picker’s fantasy. Nietzsche wants you to love the bad as well as the good, the suffering as well as the pleasure. That is the challenge at the core of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
III. Overcoming Regret
How does eternal recurrence relate to our discussion of regret? With it, Nietzsche is, at least in part, demanding that we live lives without regret. Was Nietzsche a motivational speaker ahead of his time? Not so fast. His strategy has nothing to do with trying to avoid doing (or not doing) things that will later lead to regret; rather, his is an exuberant, life-affirming (although also elitist, at times cruel, and profoundly self-centred) philosophy that to some extent thrives on the misery and the suffering of which all human lives have their fair share, just as much as it does the joy and the happiness. No, Nietzsche’s philosophy is about as far from self-help platitudes as you can get. Nietzsche would have considered regret a useless emotion that it is our duty, as part of our self-overcoming, to purge from our lives.
Despite the fact that I agree with Nietzsche in holding that we can’t eliminate the deeds or words that lead to regret, I disagree that regret can be dismissed by force of will. On the contrary, I believe that attempts to deny (or ‘self-overcome’) regret like this just lead to self-deception, where you succeed only in convincing yourself that you no longer regret anything; an illusion you can probably maintain for a certain extended period of time, but because it’s an illusion, something that’s just not worth the effort.
So, can we get rid of regret? The short answer is… it depends. One way to eliminate some types of regret involves realigning your values in the present such that a past (in)action fits in with those new values. If I become the kind of person who thinks shouting at his friends when they don’t deserve it is fine, then this change will easily dissipate the regret. However, the price I pay for doing so is to become a bit of a jerk. Not much of a trade. Also, this strategy will only work with some types of regret. It’s hard to see how regret over a missed opportunity, for example, could be dissolved in this way.
There is one other way regret can be eliminated. If the situation turns out better as a result of the (in)action, the pernicious element of the regret can sometimes fade. If, after shouting at my friend, we managed to hug it out and our relationship grew stronger as a result, the regret I felt over my action could very possibly dissipate. While it might be going too far to actually affirm, “I am glad I shouted at my friend,” or even, “I don’t regret what I did,” it might also no longer be correct to hold that “I wish I hadn’t shouted at my friend,” precisely because, although it resulted in a rough few days, all parties concerned are now better off. A situation like this can at least result in the rejection-of-oneself aspect of regret disappearing. I no longer wish I weren’t the person I am (i.e. the person who shouted at his friend) because this person is better for having gone through the experience. Again, I almost certainly wouldn’t go far as to say I was pleased to have done it, but the regret has lost its deeply personal quality.
As with the first method though, it is important to note that this won’t work with all forms of regret. Missed opportunities might again prove resistant. In addition, there does seem to be one particular criterion which is necessary for this ‘regret-relief’ to become available, one we don’t necessarily have control over; the results of the (in)action have to turn out positive. If, instead of making up with my friend, we never spoke again, I would probably never be able to purge myself of my regret. Even though I might recognise my mistake and genuinely have become a better person in light of it, it will always be true for me that “I wish I hadn’t shouted at my friend,” which means it will also always be true that I wish I weren’t the person I am. Again, you might find this connection harsh, but unless you are prepared to accept some form of dualism, it’s just the way things are. There is no transcendent ‘you’ standing a safe distance from your actions. If you aren’t your actions, you’re nothing.
It’s also worth just briefly noting that eliminating regret is nothing to do with forgiveness. You can forgive yourself for some misdeed or missed opportunity ten times a day, and twenty times on Sundays, but this, in and of itself, does absolutely nothing to erase regret.
IV. Living with Regret
So, regret sometimes dissipates, but not always. Sometimes it doesn’t fade completely, but the pernicious, personal aspect of it might disappear. Whether it does or not will often turn on circumstances that are beyond your control (particularly the consequences of the past (in)action), and will certainly depend on the magnitude of the event. If the love of your life broke up with you, eventually married another person, and moved to a different country because you couldn’t get your $@# together, you may always regret this. In addition, as we’ve discussed, life has some dirty tricks that make it almost impossible to get through to the end (or back to “Go” if you’re a Buddhist) without incurring some irresolvable regrets.
Does this sound overly pessimistic? Actually, it’s neither pessimistic nor optimistic. These categories don’t apply here. We’re investigating human existence as it is, not imagining how we want it to be. This is existentialism, baby. Regret is a part of life, and no one gets out unscathed. Of course, this isn’t to say that you must then be paralysed by regret and spend the rest of your life curled up in the foetal position hating the person you are. Irresolvable regret need not define you, but failing to acknowledge this aspect of yourself, or trying to console yourself with delusions of living without regret, is tantamount to not living at all, and that would be the biggest cause for regret of all.