28 Oct 2022

Living Without Regret

by John O’Brien

“Gee, I really wish I hadn’t done that.”

Know that feeling? We’ve all been there, made a mistake, maybe a major one, then felt the nature of its impact dawning on us. There can be a gaping raw hole in your soul when you know you messed up. There is no save file for this. You just have to suck it up and wear it.

When it happens, make whatever reparations are needed, take a big deep breath and vow not to do it again. But don’t stop trying.

It is far better to regret something that didn’t work out as expected, than regret never having attempted it in the first place. In this context, it is better to not regret at all.

Freedom of choice

Guess what? Life’s hard and full of difficult choices. You don’t always know where they will lead either. That is both beautiful and scary, and a vital part of being alive.

And your decisions are never without consequence. In physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In life, the proportionality of the response may vary from ‘cool, I got away with it’ to ‘oh no, I just cocked up bad’, but there will be a comeback of either way.

Living without regret doesn’t mean not being responsible for your own actions, nor does it give license to hurt others. Quite the contrary – not having regrets means making good choices in the first place. And if they weren’t optimal, then learning the lessons from the missteps and not doing them again. Well, not too often anyway!

It means accepting and owning your mistakes. That takes some brutal self-honesty at times, but the payoffs are generally worth it.

Failure is OK and normal. If you haven’t failed, have you really pushed yourself? If you never want to fail, you can take all the safe choices. You might get lucky with this approach. Equally, you may not. Life throws curve balls. Some do ‘all the right things’, get tripped up by an arbitrary happenstance and fail anyway. C’est la vie. Some folks throw caution to the wind and things just seem to fall in place for them. Good luck to them.

Accidents, illness, war, famine, alien probes – these things are all out of your control. They can affect anyone, regardless of genetic or social heritage, regardless of financial wealth, divine intervention or lottery magic. The random number generator of fate is truly chaotic.

It would be very sad to sit in dotage and look back on all of the things that might have been if only you’d shown a little courage.

Park, drive or reverse?

How best to achieve this lofty life state then? Start by looking forward – that’s where you are headed. Project all the different possible goals in your mind and the paths to get there.

Dream big, but don’t forget to also look backward – that’s where your lessons are. Learn from mistakes, both yours and others, so that you may make better decisions as you go. History is full of repeated gaffes, blunders and outright howlers. Best not copy them.

Above all, making the most of your opportunities requires living right here and now. Fully involving yourself in the moment and enjoying whatever task is at hand. It may be drudgery but if it is helping you towards that goal, find some Zen in whatever step you are on.

Exempli Gratia

Recently, I accidentally hit reply-all on a text to 90 people. Oops. When I told someone close, they said “good thing it was you and not me that did that.” I don’t think they meant me harm in that; more that they knew I’d accept the mistake and not stress over it. That is much easier for me than them. And yeh, I copped blowback: confused or angry reply texts of ‘who are you?’, ‘I don’t know your number’, etc came for days.

There were two ways to deal with this: beat myself up over a minor mistake that is undoable; or laugh it off each time I got pinged. I took the latter and had an amusing couple of days.

I’ve made life-changing personal and professional mistakes. Haven’t we all? Like many, I’ve equally made scores more good decisions. Nothing’s perfect, no-one’s ideal. Each step, no matter good or bad, leads you to where you stand now.

Other great examples: I permanently trashed my knee studying Aikido. Bummer, but that’s OK – learnings made there have underpinned much of my later persistence and fortitude. I started in live music with a goal of studio production. Tinnitus killed that dream but a pivot to lighting enabled another. Biggest of all, I’ve permanently damaged my back, ostensibly from building a house. But this house is my home, where I feel safe, secure and alive. It is worth every ache to live in such an environment.

Regret nothing

All this relentless positivity and self-belief schtick – am I blessed? Not in the least. I’ve endured many hardships, continue to live with multiple chronic ailments and struggle to get through some days. It would be easy to dwell on that misery and get sucked into a black hole. Rather, I blank it out with good music and long walks in the garden. It works for me, but you do you. Just do something that works to negate the negatives.

When I’m sitting in the dentist’s chair or yet another doctor’s waiting room, do I regret that I lived hard when I was young? No. It was so much fun in that instant. Pain and disability might suck now but every youthful binge built my character to what it has become.

I’m about to put it all on the line and have my first ever solo photography exhibition. If it goes well, that’s awesome. If not, no matter – I gave it a good crack. If anything, I regret not doing it earlier.

Life is for living and living happens now. Not tomorrow, not yesterday, but right now … the very moment that you are in. Get out and enjoy it, without remorse, guilt or shame.


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