What I Regret Most

Ask a person what she or he regrets most and you’ll probably learn more about them than you could from asking any other question. Many of us are defined, not by what we’ve done, but what we wish we’d done, or not done.

If the response to this question is mostly regrets about things that are outside their control — like not being born rich or beautiful or in another century, you’re probably talking to someone who makes excuses. If they’re mostly regrets about things not done, you’re probably talking to someone with low self-esteem, someone who doesn’t like themselves very much. If they’re mostly regrets about not working harder, you’re probably talking to someone who isn’t very honest with themselves!

Regrets about things not done and about things done are really two sides of the same coin. You only have so much time in your life, and so many choices, and to the extent you choose to do something you also choose not to do something else. My initial list of ‘What I Regret Most’ was almost entirely things I hadn’t done, and then I realized I could re-word each of them into a regret about what I did instead.

The extent to which self-esteem plays into our regrets is fascinating, but also, as the graphic above shows, a little paradoxical. It is almost as if nature furnished us with a self-regulatory ego, to keep us from getting either too full of  ourselves or too down on ourselves.

In listing your regrets, you need to follow one ground-rule. You can only list things you had (or now have) some control over. You may regret not winning the lottery, or that some celebrity you never met didn’t fall in love with you, or that Bill Gates or Bill Clinton didn’t pick you as his successor (or in my case, that I am shy, insensitive and a slow learner), but this is the stuff of daydreams, not regrets. If you confuse the two you will be a very unhappy person. There must be something you can do now that will make up for past wasted time or ignorance or foolishness, and rectify or alleviate or at least mitigate your regret. If it simply might have been, it’s not a regret, it’s a fiction.

In the interests of self-disclosure, of helping my readers to know a little bit more about me, as a self-prompt at this critical juncture in my life, and as a thought-provoker for updating my About the Author bio that you’ll find in the right sidebar, I thought I’d make a list of the ten things in my life I regret most. Here, in rough order of how much I regret these things, is the list:

  1. Buying Into Wage Slavery Instead of Living Simpler: I spent over 60% (an average of ten hours a day) of my waking hours for over 60% (thirty years) of my adult life doing meaningless work, and tasks (commuting, driving the kids to the baby-sitter etc.) required by that meaningless work. I had no model of any other way to live, so this was a failure of imagination. In the 1950s and 1960s where I grew up everyone was a wage slave. I rebelled, as most of us did in the 1960s, but when I got hungry and scared it was so easy to fall into the same pattern. You get wage increases, promotions, get a bigger house with a bigger mortgage that costs more to look after, and you set yourself up to have to maintain a certain material standard of living and level of financial ‘security’. That standard is also meaningless, and that security is illusory, but it is highly addictive and tightly tied up with how you are perceived by others, and hence with your self-esteem. Once you’ve been seduced from the Edge to the Centre of the System, they’ve gotcha.
  2. Not Making More Friends and Lovers: When I was young I was shy and when I got older I became jaded and picky about the company I chose. There were two brief windows, in the 1960s and later in the 1970s, when I opened up, and those were the happiest times of my life. They were the times I loved, and ached, without limit. They were times when I accepted and loved people for what they were, when my damned judging of people and my damned idealism didn’t get in the way of getting really close to people. I remember caring about friends so deeply that I rejoiced over their successes and cried over their misfortunes as profoundly as if they were my own. I remember a young lady who believed in spending every available minute of every day making love, and I remember the sheer joy of just spending time with her, until her intensity and polyamory openness scared me away.
  3. Not Loving Myself More and Not Looking After Myself Better: I’ve spent much of my life as my own worst critic, beating myself up for not doing anything about things that were way outside my control, never giving myself a break. I am in good physical condition now, but for most of my life I have not been, and as a consequence spent much of my life unnecessarily exhausted and depressed. I still have not learned to meditate. I still have not learned yoga, or any other technique to get in touch with my body. For most of my life I ate badly, and I still have not learned to cook well for myself. It is as if I have been an observer of my own life rather than a participant. And a hyper-critical observer at that. As Joni Mitchell put it, “I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes.” Fear will do that to you.
  4. Not Spending More Time in Wilderness, in Nature, with Animals and in Play: You can’t reconnect with Gaia, with the natural world, with your senses and your instincts, until and unless you’re comfortable with that world, and that takes some experience and practice. I haven’t had nearly enough practice. And animals can show us how to love. And both animals and children can show us how to really play, where it isn’t about winning, it’s about imagination and being real, here, now, in the moment.
  5. Spending Too Much Time on Information and Entertainment Activities that Don’t Matter: Reading, watching and listening to stuff that is not important, not especially interesting, and not actionable. Why do I do this? Because it’s easy, and comfortable. We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, then we do what’s fun. All the time spent in school and university studying things that don’t matter. Almost all the time spent watching TV, and reading newspapers, and reading stuff online. Wasted, because after doing what had to be done I rewarded myself by doing what was easy and fun. Instead of realizing that much of what I thought had to be done didn’t really have to be done.
  6. Getting Angry or Upset With Others, or Over Events Over Which I Had No Control: Not only did this sometimes hurt people I loved, it accomplished nothing except to make me, and others, unhappy.
  7. Eating Meat: My single greatest, and most easily avoided, contribution to the suffering of, and our society’s continued cruelty to, animals.
  8. Not Creating a Natural Enterprise With Others: Since I stopped being a wage slave, I have mostly tried to make a living as a sole proprietor. Understandable, but foolish — the chances of success, and the joys of success, are much higher when you create a more substantial business in partnership with others with complementary skills.
  9. Wearing Clothes: Nudity forces you to do several useful and important things: Not take yourself (or others) too seriously, be aware of and look after your body, realize that fashions (of all kinds) are irrelevant, and be more open, more honest, more sensitive, more human (i.e. more animal), more yourself.
  10. Not Learning to Be More Self-Sufficient: I have used my lack of manual dexterity and coordination skills as an excuse for not learning a host of critical life skills that would make me more attentive, more creative and more self-sufficient — learning to make and fix things, to draw, to dance, to live in the woods. If most of the world suffers from Learned Helplessness, mine is, ironically, self-imposed.

Things happen the way they do for a reason, and there is a perfectly reasonable explanation why I did, or failed to do, the things that I now regret doing or not doing. There is no going back, and grieving about the past is futile and self-destructive. I became a wage-slave (regret #1) instead of creating a natural enterprise with others (regret #8) because, at the time, I didn’t know better. As a result of that I was too tired and disheartened to take good care of myself (regret #3), or to spend time in nature (regret #4), and therefore got upset easily (regret #6) and indulged in meaningless escapism (regret #5). I didn’t make more friends and lovers (regret #2) because I was shy and insensitive, and learned social graces slowly. I ate meat (regret #7) because I didn’t know better, and I wore clothes all the time (regret #9) because, until recently, I didn’t have the privacy to do anything else. Also until recently, I had failed at everything I tried to do that involved manual dexterity, so I had given up trying to learn self-sufficiency skills (regret #10).

What I need to do, to strike each of these regrets off my list so that, when I die, I can honestly say I did everything I wanted and hoped to do, and had no regrets, is pretty self-evident, once you know why I regret them now. Taking stock of your regrets now, understanding why you regret them, and then resolving to do the obvious things that can put them behind you, can be a useful process. In fact, once you’re aware of the regrets that were/are in your control, and understand why you regret them, you seem to sub-consciously start to make the changes needed to alleviate them.

Alas, it takes a great deal of self-knowledge both to take stock of your regrets and to understand what underlies them. Most of us live such complicated and busy lives that we have neither the self-awareness nor the time to do so. We go through life knowing we’re not really happy but not really knowing why.

Just to be provocative, I’ve also put together a list of three things I don’t regret not doing, because I’m sure they would appear on many people’s Regrets List:

  • Not Having (Biological) Children: Even though my son and daughter are not my biological children, I love them every bit as much as if they were (at least, I can’t imagine loving them more). Not for one second have I ever regretted not having children of ‘my own’. Don’t let anyone tell you your life can’t be ‘complete’ unless you’ve brought children into the world.
  • Not Traveling More: I’ve been to more than a dozen countries, but never anyplace that exotic, or for very long (nine months was the longest away from ‘home’). As I get older my desire to travel gets less each year, and not because it’s tiring — it’s not. I’m just learning how much there is to explore, to discover, to learn, right here in my own community. I was just so numbed, so blasÈ I didn’t realize it, didn’t notice the wonder all around me.
  • Not Saying ‘I Love You’ More: I keep hearing about how important it is to say this often to people you love, in case they’re suddenly gone and you didn’t say it often enough. I don’t get this at all. “I love you” is just a three word phrase. Saying it doesn’t make it so, any more than saying “We had reliable intelligence that Saddam had WMD” makes it true. What’simportant is showing it, with your actions, not saying it.

What would your Regrets List look like? Remember the ground-rule: Only include things that you had (or now have) at least some control over, things that there is something you could do now to rectify, alleviate or mitigate that regret. Do you understand why you regret them? And if so, have you already subconsciously started to change your life to put them behind you?

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11 Responses to What I Regret Most

  1. You want to get really edgy? I have very few regrets in my life, but one thing I would do differently is not go to school. Not that I regretted school, just that it was such a waste of time and a dangerous place. physically violent, psychologically violent and worst of all, all coated with good intentions and well-meaning folks. The worst kind of place is one where you are subjected to the worst excesses of society’s control instincts and where everyone consents to the lie that it’s good for you.I have ZERO regrets about unschooling my own kids!

  2. BlogRFactor says:

    On what basis or study are you categorizing someone’s personality if they regret something not done or something out of their control. In addition – in my humble opinion, if you actually had followed all of 10 items in your regret list then I would bet that you would be a very unhappy person – just my 2 cents

  3. You need a whole new category to deal with this post, my friend.My regrets are that I did not do things sooner, yet I know I could only have done them in the time I did, so…no regrets, really. The only thing I’ll take issue with is the “I love you” bit. Of course it is more important to show, but the words are good. They are a balm. They make the giver’s heart sing and the receiver’s heart relax into a puddle of goo.Thanks for this post. Get right on that yoga, okay?

  4. Mariella says:

    About this “I love you” that communicatrix points out, i will add that if your partner´s main perceptive modality is auditive…. no showing in this world would have been enough……–I feel that between options, i mean choices, regrets, and the consequences of choices (other than regret or satisfacction), lies a road full of unconscious details that influenced our options, in a “blink”. I bet that if you had not lived all the “regrets from 1 to 10” the way you did, you would not be who you are now…. I live what you call regrets as constructive learnings…..that have helped me construct my “me” of today. Our unconscious is like more holistic…. takes into consideration variables different to our conscious take…. (I hope i was able to be clear…)

  5. Theresa says:

    Not looking after myself better; caring too much too long; possibly, possibly…eating meat (but I’m still eating it)

  6. Jon Husband says:

    I’ve had the good fortune to get to know you personally, and spend time with you going beyond ‘small talk’, and I can say unreservedly and in public that I love you for being so fiercely and clearly who you are. You inspire me .. probably too much, ‘cuz I don’t know how I (or anyone else, for that matter) can keep up. But what a great lighthouse you are.

  7. Sue says:

    Another comment on the “I love you” bit. I agree with Mariella that if you or your partner’s main perceptive modality is auditory, then expressing love by doing things for the person is just not going to register all that much as a meaningful demonstration of affection and caring. On the other hand, for someone who does interpret doing things for their partner–or having their partner do things for them like running an errand, helping with household chores, etc–it probably won’t mean as much as a “valid” expression of affection to hear “I love you”. There is a book that was published a few years ago called “The Five Languages of Love” and it outlines different modes of interpreting expressions of affection, whether given or received. I found the information in this book to be quite informative and regret that I didn’t have this knowledge many years ago. My regrets stem from the adventures and experiences that I’ve missed due to an aversion to risk-taking or an over-developed sense of caution.

  8. Carroll says:

    This was such a stimulating post, Dave. I’m kind of surprised that with all the readers you have on a given day, it didn’t elicit more comments. Made me think, I’ll tell ya! At first, I was firmly in the “few regrets” column…until I read your own very candid list. The one that resonated with me most was not having taken care of my body better. I mean, geez, we only get one time around in this one, and presumably we want to make the most of it/have it last for as long as possible. Time to re-think a few choices I’m making about food and exercise, yessir. Thanks for the nudge!

  9. zach says:

    There must be something you can do now that will make up for past wasted time or ignorance or foolishness, and rectify or alleviate or at least mitigate your regret. I wanted to say something helpful but you just don’t get it! Your life is the way it is because you are who you are!For example (just an example because I don

  10. Martin-Eric says:

    I have very few regrets in life that concern things on which I had some control. With the exception of having taken forever to become comfortable with rejection by potential partners and not take it personally, I cannot think of anything. Most of the regrets I have involve outside elements resorting to extreme measures to impose themselves and forcefully crash personal life projects I had patiently built over the years. I refer to the previous thread here about how decisions made by others can dramaticlaly affect one’s life in sometimes irreversible ways. Eventually, one reaches a conclusion that it’s better not to attempt much of anything, out of frustrations resulting from vultures repeatedly crashing everything.Funnily enough, I had this discussion yesterday with a good friend. He was commenting how I seem to have little interest for anything in life assides from gastronomy and how I basically seem to have no career plan whatsoever (I used to be known as someone with a zillion of ideas and endless enthusiasm to try anything once). I answered that this is a fair assessment. I eventually became tired of seeing projects repeatedly crashed by outside influence and decided that I could not survive another blow, so I pared down my lifestyle and have been living a more plentiful, though admitedly materially limited, existence. I droped out of the rat race and I’m happy. IIRC there is something in Eastern philosophies about Illumination coming the day one acknowledges and accepts that this world is nothing but suffering. I would tend to agree.

  11. merrie Lee says:

    Zach,You’re the one who doesn’t get it. You missed the whole point of his sharing. I loved it for what it taught me, how it enlightened me, and how much of it I can think about now, as I go about my life as a wage slave. I’m learning from your words, and so grateful you shared, and Zach, go get a big mirror and read that email to yourself, save the rest of us some wasted criticism.

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