Anyone who tells you that they live their life with no regrets is a sociopath, because it means they don’t have a conscience. It means they don’t care whom or what they destroyed to get where they are, and if presented the chance to do it all over, they would gleefully choose to leave the same trail of wreckage in their wake.
I get what people mean when they say that, though. Most folks mean that yes, they’ve made mistakes and done some not-so-nice things but they’re willing to live with them and not be consumed with regret, because life goes on and you cannot undo damage that was already done. Hopefully, you learn from your mistakes and transgressions and don’t continue to repeat them in the future.
A good friend of mine has said on many occasions that “pain is a teacher”. Regret is a form of pain. The severity of it can fluctuate. Every now and then, I wake up from a dream, and in that dream I’ve seen people I know, living or deceased, in which there is or was unfinished business between us. Sometimes it’s my late best friend Kevin, who passed ten years ago this coming Summer, who I let slip out of my life years before he died. Sometimes it’s Jeff, my ex-partner of 13 years, whom I have not spoken to in 2 years because our last conversation ended with him saying he never wanted to speak to me again. Last night, I dreamed about him, and in the dream we were both guests at a party and when we saw each other, neither of us approached. I woke up, and I felt profoundly sad. Even though the relationship ended, and badly, there are times when I sorely miss his friendship and company. I can only hope he’s doing well.
Yes, pain is a teacher, and regret teaches me all the time. Most regrets aren’t as heavy as the ones I listed above, most are minor and can be gotten past if we learn the lessons they teach. The more complex regrets involve a lot of self-examination and the willingness to be self-critical, to see where you were wrong, and to be mindful of this so as not to repeat the same mistake. If someone truly has no regrets, then they are blind to their faults and incapable of seeing how their actions harm or potentially harm others.
When I was younger I was in a band with someone who got a tattoo of the word ‘regret’. It was in the context of a game of hangman, with the stick figure in the noose & gallows above it. A few years later I got the word tattooed on me as well, but I didn’t have the understanding of regret that I do today. I was only 27 at the time, and I hadn’t seen enough disaster behind me to realize I was causing some of it. Today I see it, and I have a greater understanding of it. Though I do not live my life crippled by it, the regret does serve as a reminder to me at times, and it does highlight a lot of my newer philosophical underpinnings. Pain is a teacher. Regret is pain. The person who feels no pain does not know when they themselves are wounded. They cannot heal themselves let alone those they have hurt.
I’m grateful for my regrets, because I don’t want to be the person unaware that they’re bleeding to death.