Why Regret Is Comparable To Death

Live Emphatically, Or Drown In Mediocrity

From the perspective of a millennial in his early 20s, the concept of regret may seem rightfully premature. Almost like a key that enters a keyhole, but will not twist. But regret is not something that selectively graces only the aged amongst us. It is a journey which we all visit and reflect over daily. It can be likened, in some crude manner, to the essence of what makes us human: the ability to contemplate right and wrong action. Yet if you’re like me, you’ve allowed regret to cripple your thoughts and stifle your actions on one too many occasions. My aim in writing this post is not to offer you a solution to regret (that would be a bold assertion), but instead to offer you a new perspective from which to view regret.

First a definition. My attempt at defining regret is not to insult your intelligence, but to level the field by which I may offer my perspective. Regret is defined as “a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that has happened or been done.” To use an often-cited metaphor, it is comparable to crying over spilt milk. Yet, as you may realize, this does nothing to remedy the mere fact that the milk will not be returning to the carton. The best we may do is clean up and move on. And, though we may leave this painful experience scarred by our loss of nutritive nourishment, we have a greater understanding of how to best handle our glass of milk next time.

Where is all of this going? The above analogy is a roundabout manner of hinting at the notion that there is a proper and an improper manner of dealing with regret. This propriety is underpinned by an often-overlooked principle: death. Death? Yes, death. Ernest Hemingway once remarked, “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.” But what do these prophetic words have to do with regret? Well, to live life without the sincere understanding that our actions determine the legacy we leave behind is to waste our days mired in sadness over occurrences we no longer have control over. All this to state boldly that regret, for regret’s sake, is futile.

“The meaning of life is that it stops.” — Franz Kafka

Scenario: if you knew the very day that you were going to die and that day was fast approaching, how much time would you spend repenting a failed business venture? A failed love? Likely very little, for each second wasted in remorse is a second lost into the dark abyss of time never to be returned. Why not spend your days heeding the prophetic words of Hemingway, creating the details of your life that will distinguish you from those who spent their time languishing over matters beyond their control. To regret is painful, yes. But to allow regret to define one’s existence is to engulf oneself in the deepest of regrets: living an unfulfilled life. Simply put: stop all your regretting, pick yourself up, and move on. Death is upon the horizon and it slows its persistent advance for no one.

Will this simple act of moving on be easy? Absolutely not. But the alternative to avoiding the pain of learning from and moving past our regrets is a life of mediocrity. Philosopher Fyodor Dostoyevsky said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” In other words, the pains we experience have the unique and incredible ability to be sources of personal growth. We need only see them as such. Within the context of regret, we have all likely dealt with the mental trauma of looking retrospectively at an action which we wish we had done differently. But in focusing only on the trauma of the improperly taken action, we lose out on the ability to glean a meaningful lesson from our actions and chart a novel approach for our path forward.

Regret should serve as a barometer of indication that there was some lesson which you had to derive from your actions. Napoleon Bonaparte believed himself that, “The only victories which leave no regret are those which are gained over ignorance.” The regret, then, is to live ignorantly in the belief that regret is merely regret. But if you expand the confines of your mind to view regret as a fountain of knowledge, then your thirst for meaning and self-actualization will forever be quenched.

“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” — Viktor E. Frankl

In Friedrich Nietzsche’s, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he speaks emphatically about a concept called the eternal return. The essence of this principle states that the universe and life itself will continue to recur infinitum. This may seem a strange connection to regret, but not so if we consider another of Nietzsche’s ideologies: amor fati. This translates into “love of one’s fate.” When the concepts of the eternal return and amor fati are melded together, we see that we are implored to live our lives not to regret. But instead to live and love our lives so greatly that we could withstand the “plight” of dying and being born into the same exact life forever. But again, if one were to simply dwell on regret, then one loses the crucial opportunity to create a legacy of actions that allow for amor fati.

So my call to you is to do the following: live proudly and embrace your fate emphatically. Know that death is a constant burden whose menacing march will not slow simply because you are mourning a regretted action. Know also that regret is not to be scorned, but poses an opportunity to grow into a more self-actualized version of you. Above all, live to love your fate.

“Of human life the time is a point, and the substance is in a flux, and the perception dull, and the composition of the whole body subject to putrefaction, and the soul a whirl, and fortune hard to divine, and fame a thing devoid of judgment. And, to say all in a word, everything which belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream and vapour, and life is a warfare and a stranger’s sojourn, and after-fame is oblivion.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Originally published at Julesmbu.com.