regret As I was driving to the office yesterday I saw a billboard that read: No one on their deathbed ever regretted not having spent more time at the office. Rather than savouring the irony, I got to wondering why we go through so much of our lives regretting what we haven’t done, and why we don’t do something about it. I discovered that there is (surprise) a website (regretsonly.com) and a book ( Damn!) on the subject, which suggest that most of our regrets are about relationship choices, passed up opportunities, indiscretions, bad decisions, youthful folly, or procrastination.

Let’s set aside for the moment the regrets for actions that seriously hurt others, where it is too late to do anything but deal with the guilt and atone for the consequences. Why do we regret inaction, the road not taken? Why do we regret past choices that hurt no one but ourselves? On the surface, there does not seem to be any Darwinian logic to regret. As Stephen Stills said “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Seems like sage advice for survival and sanity, so why does it rub so many of us the wrong way?

The emotion of ‘regret of inaction’ is not guilt, but grief. Selfish grief to be sure, but grief nonetheless. What possible value does it serve? Such regret is the result of imagination: If we could not imagine the possible outcomes of a road not taken, we could not regret not having taken it. And the fact we did not take that road suggests there was some overriding moral or rational assessment that led us not to take it. The overriding assessment would be that a trade-off was necessary (not all roads can be taken) and in the absence of perfect information or as a result of immaturity the road that was taken (even if that alternative road was to do nothing) had greater emotional or intellectual appeal (e.g. the desire to minimize risk) at the time. In simpler terms, regret stems from if I knew now what I knew then realizations of what we imagine might have been.

Suppose we take this out of the human domain for a moment. Suppose a doe makes a decision to steer a predator in a certain direction to distract it from her fawns, and it turns out that she steered in the wrong direction and her fawns were eaten by the predator. She could imagine what the alternatives might have been, and regret the choice not to go in the other direction. This would have a Darwinian purpose: Learning about the consequences of alternatives enhances the survival of the species by improving the decision-making process the next time a similar situation arises. But why should the doe emotionally regret the consequences of a wrong decision, rather than simply intellectually learning from the experience? Why should she beat herself up over having made the wrong decision? Perhaps ‘lingering’ regret is a Darwinian message that more work is needed, that our learning is incomplete. But suppose the fawns exercised some judgement of their own and took some action that saved themselves despite the doe’s error. The doe will feel less regret, less grief over her error because the consequences were less severe. But that means the real grief was over the loss of her fawns, not the judgement error that led to it, and that the regret is a separate (and relatively minor) emotional consequence.

So when we regret having married X instead of Y, or regret making a living doing X instead of Y, or regret having done X today instead of Y, are there similarly multiple emotions at work that we lump together as ‘regret’? These cases pre-suppose that we are unhappy, intellectually or emotionally, with the road we did take, which allows us to imagine a better alternative from a better decision. So we are already dealing with two emotions, grief over the consequences of the decision we did take, and regret for what we imagine might have been (grass being always greener, etc.) the consequences of the decision we did not take. The harder we judge ourselves, and the more idealistic we are by nature, the deeper the latter emotion will be.

To what purpose? The unhappiness, the grief over our current state is probably designed to be motivational. If the doe is instinctively dissatisfied with the stag she’s with, because of his inability to provide what she thinks she should expect from the relationship, she is motivated to leave and find another mate, especially if there’s one handy so she can imagine the possibilities, and presumably her subsequent action will result in healthier and longer-living progeny. If the doe and stag find their current grazing area unsatisfactory, they are likewise motivated to find and move to a better place, ‘make their living differently’, with improved Darwinian consequences.

And what’s the purpose of the regret for the road not taken? Assume for a moment it is too late to choose Y instead of X . The alternative stag has long since picked another mate and moved away, the other grazing area long since been taken over by other herds. Is the lingering regret merely an emotional or intellectual artifact of imagining what ‘might have been’, when it was still ‘what might be’? The imagining of what might be is clearly instructional, it has learning value and thus Darwinian advantage. But if it’s too late, why do we regret what might have been? Here’s Eliot’s answer (yes, I’m quoting Burnt Norton again):

       Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present All time is unredeemable. What might have been is an abstraction Remaining a perpetual possibility Only in a world of speculation. What might have been and what has been Point to one end, which is always present. Footfalls echo in the memory Down the passage which we did not take Towards the door we never opened Into the rose-garden. My words echo Thus, in your mind. But to what purpose Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves I do not know. Other echoes Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow? Quick, said the bird, find them, find them, Round the corner. Through the first gate, Into our first world, shall we follow The deception of the thrush? Into our first world. There they were, dignified, invisible, Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves, In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air, And the bird called, in response to The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery, And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses Had the look of flowers that are looked at. There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting. So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern, Along the empty alley, into the box circle, To look down into the drained pool. Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged, And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight, And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly, The surface glittered out of heart of light, And they were behind us, reflected in the pool. Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty. Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children, Hidden excitedly, containing laughter. Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind Cannot bear very much reality. Time past and time future What might have been and what has been Point to one end, which is always present. 

What Eliot is saying, I think, is that when we are unhappy we create stories that provide us with solace, and that our vivid imaginings can become so real that they become alternatives out of time, so that ‘what might have been’ becomes to us a real possibility in the present. As the remarkable film To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday so eloquently showed, if we are unable to let go of these imagined, invented stories, they cease to provide solace (which is positive) and begin to consume us with regret (which is negative). It is like the reverse of the Dragon Story : As important as it is to recognize our dragons when they are real, it is equally important to recognize our stories of ‘what might have been’ as unreal, as merely stories . One cannot regret a story. It is not a possibility, not a road not taken, it does not exist.

This entry was posted in Preparing for Civilization's End. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. augustine@natda.f9.co.uk says:

    Absolutely right, Dave.Imagination (when not chanelled into creative work) is responsible for many of our self-inflicted woes.Moi, je ne regrette rien!Augustinehttp://www.nataliedarbeloff.com/blaugustine.html

  2. Rob Paterson says:

    Hi DaveI wonder also if some stories are exceptinalyy dangerous – stories of tribal grief. Derry in Irleand, Serbian loss to the Sultan, how the white man screwed us in Canada, the Holocaust, the loss of Palestine and so on. On a personal note – my mother never gave me the love I needed, I was molested etc also seem espeiocally disabling if held onto. Holding onto these stories seems to block progress and enables us to keep blaming the other for where we are now maybe hundreds of years or even millenia away

  3. Marie Foster says:

    My Dad always felt that regret was pretty useless. It does not change anything and only ends up hurting you. He felt the same about worry too. My own feeling is that regret is one of those puddles in the road you have to get around. Either you can wade through it or jump over it or go around it. Too many people stand there and spend the rest of their life trying to figure out what the puddle means instead of learning and growing.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    The challenge is, once you intellectually accept that there is no value in regretting what ‘might have been’, or in worrying or blaming, to get your heart and body to buy in. Writing this gave me a couple of ‘aha!’ mpments, but thus far they haven’t penetrated below my neck.

  5. kyte says:

    Reading your words gave me quite a few “aha” moments. Alas, below-neck penetration requires a lot more. I am a regrettaholic I think, even though at an intellectual level I know it destroys one’s potentials. Perhaps a 12 step program is in order.

  6. maven says:

    Hi Dave!Love your website. Love this post.BUTlet the poetry speak for itself. Any attempt at interpreting poerty just curtails its endless evocative powers.UNLESS,you were simply sharing. In which case, thanks!

Comments are closed.