Man in a posture of regret

Making Good Use of Regret

Every day we make decisions. Some are inconsequential. Some move us closer to our goals. And some will lead to regret. Researchers say the most enduring regrets are the result of things we didn’t do, especially if they involve other people. We can, after all, correct or make amends for mistakes, but we can’t do much about missed opportunities.

People often claim that they plan to live so they won’t have regrets, but that’s not really an option. First, our knowledge is always imperfect so, even if we make the best possible decision, given what we know at the time, we are likely to learn things later that make us wish we had done something different. Second, even if our understanding were perfect, things change. What’s true today won’t necessarily be true tomorrow.  And a decision that worked beautifully in the past may fit poorly in new environments.

In other words, regret is inevitable. As Soren Keirkegarde succinctly put it, ““I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.”  That assessment may seem dismal but there is another way to think about regret. Instead of blaming ourselves and ruminating endlessly about the road not taken, we can challenge ourselves to see regret as an opportunity. We wouldn’t have this feeling unless something that matters is at risk. What do we value and how can we protect it under changed circumstances?

Distinguish means from ends

Often, regret helps us understand that we have confused what we value with one of many ways of achieving it. Recently, my husband and I sold the home in which we’d raised our children. We moved some things and dispersed others and put the rest up for sale. Not surprisingly, regret was part of the process.I started to wonder why my husband and I ever decided to relocate. Why were we selling the table where we’d eaten so many family meals? What would become of our memories if we let go of the place where they had been formed?

At one point, my husband said gently, “What matters isn’t the stuff. It’s the people.”  As soon I heard his words, I realized I had been confusing means with ends. What really mattered were the relationships we had forged as a family. Now that our children were grown, the trappings of childhood actually made it more difficult to clarify what mattered to them as adults.  Distinguishing between the value—close family relationships—and the means—a house full of memorabilia—helped me recalibrate. Instead of being preoccupied with what happened in the past, I started to think about how to maintain meaningful connections in the present.

Recognize accumulating harms

Regret can also be the first indication that harms are accumulating in ways that undermine what we value. Recently, an elderly relative told me about a rose bush that she had tended for many years. This spring, it was, inexplicably, dead. As that story is repeated in gardens across the country, many people are feeling twinges of regret. Could this be the result of climate change? Plants, of course, thrive under certain conditions—a growing season of a specific length, a range of high and low temperatures, a certain quantity of rain. They can tolerate variations in these conditions—up to a point.  Could small decisions about energy use accumulate into harms that put the plants we love and depend on in jeopardy?  In cases like these, regret may be an indication that we need to reexamine our habits, evaluating the cumulative effect of small, seemingly insignificant actions.

Appreciate multiple viewpoints

Finally, regret can signal a failure to take into account viewpoints that are crucial to a full understanding of our situation. After the recent American election, some people have expressed regret about the outcome and even their own votes. Many observers think the usual polarization between parties was intensified by behind-the-scenes programming of social media to deliver more of what a participant likes. As a result, voters gradually stopped hearing alternate points of view.

Regret is more likely when we make decisions based on incomplete information. In the case of trade, for example, a person who has watched a factory ship jobs overseas may want trade agreements that penalize companies when they want to bring products back into the country. Farmers who have become dependent on exports may worry that the same agreements will cause other countries to introduce tariffs that will limit their opportunities. Constructive trade policy has to take into account both of these points of view as well as many others.  In a polarized media environment, feelings of regret tell us we all must be more deliberate about seeking out thoughtful, informed people who have come to conclusions different from our own.

From our point of view, regret is a call to Deep Discernment, the social virtue we cover in depth in Chapter 3 of Cooperative Wisdom. Uncomfortable as feelings of regret may be, they open up an opportunity to reassess our assumptions, notice incremental harms and seek out divergent viewpoints to expand our understanding of what is at stake.  We make good use of regret, when we follow the  advice of Henry David Thoreau:  “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest.”   For, as Thoreau wisely concluded, “To regret deeply is to live afresh.”

Carolyn Jabs

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