A Life Without Regrets

A Facebook friend posted a note about his regretting behaviors of a few years back. Comments followed. Among them a voice in defense of not regretting holding opinions that the writer saw as going against the tide, and nobly so. Sure. And…

The defenses of ego are strong. And, absolutely, sometimes they defend true things.

But, it was also said in context of someone expressing regret for past behaviors, and the writer’s friends seemed as likely as not to offer excuses.

And, it set me to thinking about our current ambiguous relationship to regret.

I looked up regret and quotes and saw they pretty much were all in favor of not having regrets. They tended to range from such comments as “Accept everything about yourself – I mean everything, you are you and that is the beginning and the end – no apologies, no regrets” from politician, and to some, war criminal Henry Kissinger, or, financial guru & motivational speaker Suze Orman’s fuzzy feel warm advice “When you’re happy you find pure joy in your life. There are no regrets in this state of happiness – and that’s a goal worthy striving for in all areas of life.” The list of people who were credited with the line, or very close to it, “I have no regrets,” included Edward Teller, Robert Redford, Jack Kevorkian, George McGovern, Ed Koch, Dionne Warwick, and Edward Snowden.

No regrets?


Now, another comment in that thread warned about wallowing in regrets. And a good warning, no doubt. And, again, in a context where someone was confessing to something that seemed regretful to me.

It is my observation that suggestion that regret can be obsessive, a poison in its own way, has often become an excuse.

What we seem to be invited into is a careening path of self-justification.

The ego has its ways to justify pretty much any behavior.

And our contemporary culture is more than happy to conspire with our egos, particularly if it can be accompanied by the sale of a product or service.

Here’s the deal.

We are complex creatures. While it is in fact a bit too simplistic the Two Wolves story attributed to the Cherokee tradition that we have two wolves living in us, one that acts for the good, the other toward ill, and we need to be careful which one we feed can be helpful. Too simplistic because we in fact are a whole zoo of creatures. And the keepers. And the visitors. We are the giraffe. We are the keepers who put it down. We are the lions who ate the remains.

If the image of zoo offends, let me offer another one, we, you and I, are, each of us, a forest. The rest follows, pretty much the same…

We are multitudes.

And, I have found in my life, by paying attention to what I do with as open a heart as possible, does indeed lead me to regrets.

I contain multitudes. And there are parts of me that are not pleasant. In another Facebook feed I commented on how I’ve started a class that teaches seventeenth century style dueling. A friend suggested I might be happier engaging a Chinese style martial art. My response was, but, I want something where I can hurt someone.

Mostly a joke.


I contain multitudes.

And I think it wise to pay attention to the parts that step to the front. The parts that take action. And what those actions are. For just a moment, for just a heartbeat, not justifying, not denying, just looking.

And perhaps it leads to a pang of regret.

Which can be magic. With that hint of regret there several paths open. One is our old friend, to deny, or mitigate, neither of which is much different than the other. Another is to wallow in regret. Which is its own illness…

And, the other is to notice that isn’t really the animal I want to feed, and to change course.

We are, as one friend has put it, the unpredictable animal.

We can change.

And regret can be the little warning sign.

The canary in the coal mine.

Opening new worlds.

So, my wish for us all, is that we find our regrets, and sooner than later.

We all might be a bit better off for it…

  • Zen Buddhism

    Nice. Also check out David Whyte’s short, moving piece on regret: http://tiny.cc/hpf6ax

  • Stephen Slottow

    Seems to me that regret is human. I’d really distrust anyone that had no regrets because it would signal a possible disregard of consequences–and that is almost always dangerous. The “everything is empty, so it doesn’t matter what happens or what I do” school, which Robert Aitken (very felicitously) termed pernicious emptiness.

    • Jeanne Desy

      Ooh, nice term. Aitken often said it just right. . . . Along this line, I just reposted this post on Dalai Grandma with my own comments from the peanut gallery.

  • Dave Laser

    “…to change course” Yep. Sincere regret, to use Whyte’s term, could be considered a red flag; an opening for action: there is always another person, or persons, at the receiving end of that regrettable behavior. If I take my attention off myself, and get it over there, with that person, there are a number of powerful and effective actions that become available to me: 1. Notice the regret, and acknowledge it. ” Boy, I feel really crappy about yelling at Diane last night.” 2. Get in communication- with the person, or, if the person isn’t available, (e.g. dead, never wants to see me again, ever) recruit a committed listener. 3.Convey my regret. Say what I did. ” I yelled at you last night, and I’m sorry.” 4. Acknowledge the impact of my actions on that person, without excuses, justifications, etc. “You were expressing an opinion, and I shouted at you- that must have felt like a betrayal.” 5. Allow the person space to say what there is for them to say, and stand on my hind legs and take it. “What do you want to say to me about that?” Listen, and get it. No excuses. Really give space for that person to whale away. 6. Make a promise. Declare what I can be counted on for, in the future. (A promise is not a not-something, e.g. not-yelling) ” I promise that from now on, when you’re with me, you’ll be free and safe to express yourself fully.” 7. Ask to be forgiven, and accept that I might not be. Keep my promise, anyway. 8. If I find myself unwilling to be in communication, then I can consider the regret inauthentic, and let it go. Likewise, if it’s just about me (I wish I hadn’t got that tattoo on my butt), I can let that go, too. I’ve found that regret, if dealt with powerfully, isn’t the end of the story, but can be the possibility for transforming relationships.
    Of course, none of this applies if you just whack somebody’s hand off in a duel…

  • Y. A. Warren

    There is only one sure path to peace, and that is to regret the evils that we do enough to make amends to each other for them, if possible.

  • Ryan Hite

    We are complex creatures. I believe that we have two natures in our life. We have this human side and we have this spiritual side about us. We need to accept it for what it is and we need to live our life because life will happen to us and peace will come to us if we accept it for what it is. http://www.amazon.com/Virtues-Vices-Ryan-Hite-ebook/dp/B00IFRF9RY/ref=sr_1_2?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1392344503&sr=1-2&keywords=virtues+and+vices http://hitemagazine.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/our-body-and-spirit/ http://foundationcoa.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/what-is-grace/