Reader Request Week 2013 #2: Regrets

Deb Zwez asks:

In light of the recent death of Roger Ebert, and your noted regret in not sending your book (your tribute was lovely, BTW) — and coupled with your obvious pleasure in how your life has turned out at this point in time, do you have any other regrets that may influence your future?

I’m not in a position to know what I will regret in the future, and I’m actually fairly happy about that, as I don’t imagine that there is much worse than waiting to do a thing you know you are fated to always regret. I do try to live my life in a manner so that I never have cause to regret anything; I like anyone else am imperfect on this score. Nevertheless, the attempt is useful, I think.

I’m happy to say that so far I don’t have any major regrets in my life, where “regret” would be defined as “a thing I would sorely like to go back in time and change, and thus materially alter my life from that point forward.” Much of that is due to the fact that (as Deb correctly surmised) I am very happy with where I am in my life. Since everything I’ve experienced in my life has led me to this point, why would I regret those things? It doesn’t mean that every one of those things made me happy at the time; they did not. Some of those events caused me a considerable amount of pain, either as they were happening, or later, or both. But now I am here, now, and I am very glad to be here, now. So.

What things I do regret are typically failures of ego: Where I have been rude to people through obliviousness, anger or fear; where I have hoped for favor for my deeds instead of doing a correct thing for itself; where my own desires have led me to act poorly or stupidly; where my laziness has kept me from right action. These are not typically things of life changing status, but they do remind me that there is a gap between who I am and who I wish I was, and that in that gap are people who, for no particularly good reason, I’ve been a dick to. These are the times when I had a chance to be a better person but let the chance get past me.

The way I deal with those regrets is pretty simple. One, I apologize as necessary — an act which for me is not about seeking forgiveness but rather acknowledging I was in the wrong, without excuse. Two, I try not to make the same dick move twice. Continually trying to be better than that is part of the process of trying to live without regret.

(In the interest of honestly I will admit that there are times where I am intentionally a dick to someone, because I thought it is needed or desirable at the moment. I don’t tend to regret those. And if in the fullness of time I do, well, see the paragraph above.)

To quote the famous line: “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then, too few to mention.” For me I’ve had enough to mention, but not of the sort that makes me wish my life had been different; just the ones that make me wish I was a better person. The good news is that I can keep working on being a better person. It’s a hell of a lot easier than going back in time, anyway.

(It’s not too late to get in a topic for Reader Request Week: Go here for the details and to leave your request!)

17 thoughts on “Reader Request Week 2013 #2: Regrets

  1. “What things I do regret are typically failures of ego: Where I have been rude to people through obliviousness, anger or fear; where I have hoped for favor for my deeds instead of doing a correct thing for itself; where my own desires have led me to act poorly or stupidly; where my laziness has kept me from correct action. These are not typically things of life changing status, but they do remind me that there is a gap between who I am and who I wish I was, and that in that gap are people who, for no particularly good reason, I’ve been a dick to. These are the times when I had a chance to be a better person but let the chance get past me. I regret those times.”

    I don’t have a question, just a comment. I love this paragraph, for what it says about and how it speaks to me.
    Thanks for sharing so honestly, and I’m going to keep this quote as a reminder of those things I also regret.

  2. Grrr, I hate typos (I’m an Editor professionally). Just had to fix what I wrote, I’m anal I know.

    I don’t have a question, just a comment. I love this paragraph, for what it says about you and how it speaks to me.
    Thanks for sharing so honestly, and I’m going to keep this quote as a reminder of those things I also regret.

  3. “…where “regret” would be defined as “a thing I would sorely like to go back in time and change, and thus materially alter my life from that point forward.”

    For me, the regret demarcation point is the birth of my second son. I cannot wish to change anything before that point, because otherwise he would never have existed. My life had to happen exactly the way it did for him to be. And I like that my son exists. So regret (and time travel) is off limits for me for the time before May 2008.

  4. Regrets (hope I won’t have any for sending this).

    “that in that gap are people who, for no particularly good reason, I’ve been a dick to.”
    To whom?

  5. Error in reading… understood that as “… I’ve been a dick, too.”

    and now I do have regrets… Rudest of words!

  6. bravehamster writes:

    So regret (and time travel) is off limits for me for the time before May 2008

    Can’t we have theoretical regret? If a someone is careless and is seriously injured as a result and meets his true love during months of painful physical therapy, can’t one regret not being more careful without wanting to change how things turned out?

  7. Nice essay. Well done. Also have few regrets, for the same reasons. It is a good way to live.

  8. An unusual idea and a good answer. I deal with regrets in one of two ways:

    – if it’s regret about something I did, I apologise; if it’s an unexpressed debt, I say thanks (and it doesn’t matter if that’s years later so long as I do it);
    – anything else (eg, in my case, not going away to university) I simply accept that I made the best choice at the time that I could, and that another person, exactly like me and in the same circumstances, would have done the same thing…

  9. when I am asked this question I reply that it would be the height of hubris to wish I could change the past to make my life better now. I have a beautiful and loving wife of 45 years, two very successful and confident daughters, two lovely and bright granddaughters, health, a career, two retirements, and a job now that lets me make a difference for kids. Which of those would I risk to go back and try to tinker with decision to “improve” the present? None. Like John my regrets are when people needed me and out of ignorance, oversight, or obliviousness I wasn’t there. I try not to add to that list.

  10. My “oh hells” and “what-ifs” are mostly about the fact that I’ve become disabled, and there are limitations now that weren’t there a dozen years ago.

    Mike’s “theoretical regret” above comes in to play, though: if those things had not happened, I’d not have found out just how many good friends I have (and found out that a few, well, weren’t *wry*). It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with that..

    All that said, I have one thing I know I did right – when Betty got the inoperable/untreatable carcinoma diagnosis in November, we already hadn’t left anything unsaid. She was the sister I never had; she said I was the sister she should have had; we had both been able to say “I love you”, every time we talked.

  11. I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done. I make what I believe is the right decision at the time I make it. Sometimes I’m wrong. When that happens, I do something to fix the bad result. When that’s not possible (e.g. killing a cat whole driving to fast), I accept that I screwed up and get on with living. I’ve been living like that for over 72 years now, and even though there are things I would have done differently in retrospect, I still have no regrets.

  12. Regrets are tests by moral poison.
    Too much will bow you half asleep
    Paralyzed and half awake
    Choose with care which to keep
    Never a one all forgotten
    Fresh new reminders do not come cheap

    Heed well their warning whispered cautions
    Examined, studied, tagged and weighed
    In the mantle of your heart
    Preserved, reviewed, displayed
    Exhibits of what not to do
    Still just as potent though long decayed

    Wherefore to remind you all your years
    Mistakes that scar like open sores
    Steer you from those faltered steps,
    Push with you heavy doors
    Divine which path is righteousness
    And above all to avoid encores.

  13. I have one, secret, regret. When I was a teen I heard Robert Heinlein talking about his regret that he didn’t have enough time to complete all the stories he had and he wished he had someone (he may have used the term “lackey”) to handle mundane tasks for him. Being young & stupid I decided I would hitchhike out to his place & offer my services as an apprentice. For room and board I would handle those mundane tasks & document his story ideas for the opportunity to learn by observation.

    I chickened out & I always regret that. Not that I think for a minute he would have accepted! I am sure he would have looked at me as yet another intruder into his space (I was unaware at the time of the burden “Stranger In A Strange Land” put on him with unexpected visitors but after hearing about it later thought I might have been greeted with a shotgun ;)). But I bet I would have a great story to tell about the experience.

  14. What a powerful and wonderful piece. I am continually astounded with your skill as a short form writer when reading the work that you post.

    Since I have lived the past several years of my life with massive regret but am too scared to alter things in a way that might change this, I congratulate you on the decisions and outlook that have allowed you to write this post. It is also good to be reminded that others live in different mental states from ones own.

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