I returned a book recently. I try not to do that too often. It’s the whole finish-what-you-start thing. But I just couldn’t push on.
Before I caved though, I first did what I often do right before returning a book. I went on Amazon and checked the reviews. Because I generally assume I’m wrong. I assume I have poor taste or that I just don’t “get it.” So I go on Amazon and see what people have to say. Many a time I will give the book a second chance with some newfound context.
But not in this case.
One reviewer noted something that resonated with me. And I knew then that my journey with the book was over. To paraphrase, the reviewer complained that the main character never took responsibility for their actions. They were a poor-me type. Their choices were what led to their ruin and nothing else.
What if you could do it all again?
The book itself is about someone who recently died. In between life and death, the character is given the option to live a different version of their existence. A life with no regrets. A life with infinite possibilities. One where they could return to Earth and explore every unturned stone. One where they could get an answer to every what-if.
A fun premise, certainly, yet it didn’t sit well with me.
Because the entire book is about a character filled with regret. Regret, and the awful toll it takes on you. The pseudo-afterlife in which they find themselves, the magical realm of all-possibility, grants them a chance to live again. And maybe, just maybe, they won’t have as many regrets this time around. But here’s the problem: regret is necessary. It’s a good thing.
It’s not something to hide from. It is something to embrace. Because each regret you experience is a lesson. It’s an opportunity to see what you did wrong so that you can do things differently in the future.
When you fear regret
A friend once told me that she feared regret. She wanted to live life to the fullest so that she would never look back and wonder.
It’s a pretty common thing for people to say. And, it’s naive.
To live a life with no regrets is to make the correct choice 100% of the time. It is to make the exact right decision in every moment. It is to live a life with no errors, mistakes, or shortcomings. In other words, it is not possible. Therefore, to fear regret is to fear reality. It’s the equivalent of fearing the air in your lungs. It’s illogical.
The real thing to fear is repeating the same mistake twice. The real thing to fear is not learning from your regrets. That is what should cause you to toss and turn at night. Not that you let the one get away, but that given a second chance you let it happen again. Not that you stumbled in an interview, but that you continue to stumble over and over.
Regret is a good thing
To regret something is to recognize you made a mistake. From that regret, you have two options: learn from it or ruminate over it. Most people unconsciously go with the latter. They hold the regret in their mind and scold themselves for not taking the job, not moving to the city, or not marrying the love of their life. Unfortunately, that path only leads to sorrow and likely even more regret.
It doesn’t have to be that way though.
As I’ve written this to you, I’ve been trying to recall a regret from my life. A thing I wish I could go back and do differently. That way I could share my story. That way I could show empathy and a way to do better. But… I don’t really have anything to share. That’s not because I’ve played the game perfectly though. And it’s not because I’ve made the right decisions time and again.
Rather, it’s because I don’t live my life looking for regrets.
If I make a mistake, I try really hard to learn from it. I don’t say, “Oops. I guess I’ll always regret that moment.” Instead, I say, “That sucked. How do I make sure that never happens again?” I sit with the error. I think on it. And by the time I get off the couch, I have a plan to do differently, to do better.
If I make the mistake again, great, it’s another opportunity for me to learn. If I don’t make the mistake again, wonderful, I turned a negative experience into one of empowerment.
Regret is the last thing you should ever worry about. Why? Because regret is a good thing. Often we make mistakes without ever consciously being aware of them. We cut our fingernails a little too short, we slightly overcook dinner, or we forget to change out the laundry. These little errors disappear into oblivion.
But regret? Regret is loud. It makes itself known. Not so that you are forced to forever grieve over it. Regret is loud because it wants you to see it. It wants you to recognize it. And it wants you to learn from it.
When you learn from your regrets they are no longer regrets. They are lessons learned. They are battles hard-won. In learning from your regrets, you own your mistakes. You take responsibility for your life. And you become a better person because of it. If you want something to fear, fear making the same mistake twice. But know that’s only possible if you ignore reality, if you ignore the lesson right in front of you.
Embrace regret. See it for what it is. Know that it’s inevitable and recognize that it’s nothing more than a loud mistake. It’s just a grand opportunity for you to do differently next time.
And there will be a next time. Life is funny like that.