Essay on Regret: Experiencing regret, learning from it and moving on

Jasper Johns Regrets

Untitled by Jasper Johns; part of the Jasper Johns: Regrets exhibition at MoMA

Whenever I think of regret, I think of The Last Unicorn, in which the protagonist, a unicorn, is magically transformed into a human girl and learns the meaning of regret, an emotion unicorns are not familiar with. As a child, I was sad to think that not only would the unicorn now know the bitter taste of regret, she might also face rejection from her own kind because of it.

Later, as a teenager full of puffed up adolescent bravado, I liked to say that I regretted nothing. I parroted this line often, in the vein of Edith Piaf’s Je Ne Regrette Rien.  “Non rein de rein/non je ne regrette rein!”

Of course, as an adult I now know that such a thing is simply impossible. We all have regrets – regret is an integral part of human nature. I have regretted many things. I regret eating too much ice cream the night before. I regret I could not be a better friend, daughter or sibling. I regret I could not have been kinder, wiser, gentler, more gracious or patient in the past. I regret not having worked harder in the past to achieve what I want and I regret being fearful of what others think of me.

Regret forms a large part of hindsight. Who amongst us has not looked back on the past with all the worldly wisdom of hindsight and experience, and think, ‘If I had my life to start all over while knowing what I know now, I could have achieved so much more than what I have now’?

And yet. If we had to live life all over again, would we have done it? Would we be the same selves we are now, would we be changed for the better or worse because of it? Regret is part of a learning curve that allows us to step back and take stock of the situation/circumstances which triggered this emotion. It forces us to take a closer look at the causes and come away from it with some newfound wisdom, lessons learned from our mistakes that will help us grow and become a better person. Experiencing and learning from our regrets in turn helps us to become a more resilient and wiser person. It teaches us compassion, as we learn to forgive ourselves for mistakes made, and empathy, as we are now better able to understand how someone else would feel in a similar situation. It helps us to understand who we are as a person, as we seek to lead a meaningful and fulfilled life, in short, a life without regret.

Lir and Amalthea

Some of us are unfortunate enough to have one or more major regrets in life, events which stand out like sore thumbs in our psyche, situations we have regretted sorely, indeed not completely gotten over yet. I know I am one of them. But I have also come to realise that if I ever want to learn from my mistakes and if I ever had any hope of reconciling my mistakes, I needed first of all to forgive myself and to assure myself that it is all right to make mistakes as long as I can learn from it. We can often judge ourselves too harshly and in turn end up holding ourselves back from the healing/learning process, turning us into the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass as she runs on the spot and is never able to get anywhere else. But only once we can forgive ourselves, can we begin the process of learning from our mistake and attempting to set matters right, as well as to take what we’ve learned and use it to modify our future behaviour and future outlook into ensuring such a mistake never occurs again.

Some of us have made horrible mistakes that we deeply regret, mistakes that we still cringe over, our hearts still aching upon recollection. Sometimes it might be such a vast mistake that we do not think we could ever come back from it, perhaps even something where we feel our actions or inactions have cost us dearly in terms of the inherent goodness of our soul, and that nothing we can do will ever right this wrong.

However, it is also a mistake to think that. Yes, there are mistakes of great magnitude that will be very hard to forgive, sometimes it would seem quite impossible. It may feel like an everlasting regret that will stay with us. But it would also be a very grave mistake to think that there is no turning back and that we are forever what we are because of it. It is important to remember that humans are changeable in nature and we can always change. It is also important to remember that we have a choice in everything we do. We could choose to dwell on our mistakes, gradually turning our remorse into something that is also hard, bitter and resentful. Or we could choose instead to move on by spending the rest of our life working towards paying back or correcting this mistake. Even if we felt it could never be corrected, our efforts alone in trying to make right would be worth something, and if we are truly sincere in it, it would be worth very much indeed, no matter if it does not feel like it right now.

Hieronymus_Bosch_unicorn

Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch 

It’s always important to remember that while we might not be able to change the past, we can always change the future. We learn, we grow and we share. And while perhaps we can never fully change the past or never fully reclaim the innocence that was ours before mistakes were made, we can instead continue to grow and change and become something else entirely. Something that is good and beautiful and wise and all the more poignant because of our mistakes, our regrets, and most importantly of all, because of our efforts to rectify these mistakes and change our regret into something good and well-intentioned and meaningful which we can offer up to the world in place of our mistakes, of our ability to change for the better in the face of our failures. Like the last unicorn, perhaps we can no longer go back to what we once were, but we can make the best of a bad situation and appreciate instead the wisdom and understanding we have gained from it.

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