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I regret nothing

March 25, 2012

There are a few parts of my brain that are missing. I know this not because I used to have them, because I didn’t, but because of how other people refer to their own feelings and thoughts, which I simply can’t relate to or sometimes even decipher.

One of them is the part of the brain that enjoys art. I already explained how I don’t like or understand paintings. I just don’t get why people look at art. The closest I can get to enjoying art is photography, and then usually I only like naked photos. But at that point I don’t think it’s liking it for the artistic part exactly.

Here’s another confession. I don’t have a regret center in my brain. I am someone who regrets nothing. I mean, every now and then I certainly realize I made a mistake, and I do experience an “oh shit!” feeling that I made that mistake. Like, I’ll get in the wrong line at a check-out counter and the other line will go faster (“oh shit!”). But that doesn’t seem to compare with other people’s concept of regret.

Here’s how I argue that nobody should experience regret. Let’s assume you a regret decision you’ve made, that you later believe you should have made differently. But when you’re faced with a choice, there are things you can control and things you can’t. There are things you know and things you don’t. There are consequences that you can measure and those you can’t. You do the best you can with the information you have when you make your decision. Then it’s done. What’s to regret? If you went back to that place and that time, knowing what you knew then, and being that person you were then, you’d do the same thing. It’s kind of a tautology, but it’s convincing to me.

Maybe you are mourning for not being a person who could have made a different, better choice? Even so, (I’d suggest), don’t be regretful about that, but rather try now to become someone who would make the right decision next time.

What is the utility of a regret? Does it help us do better next time? I’m all for learning from mistakes, but I don’t see why it should be such a negative process. Maybe I learn more slowly from my mistakes because I don’t have regretful feelings.

On the other hand, from my observation of this alien emotion, I’d argue that the fear of having future regrets is more of a problem than the possible mistakes people actually make. That fear seems pretty unpleasant and it seems to cloud people’s decisions: they end up experimenting less and taking fewer risks.

Am I missing something? Since I can’t understand regretting, I probable am, so please explain it to me.

Categories: rant
  1. March 25, 2012 at 8:34 am

    I think regretting simply means that you realize that you made a suboptimal decision and wish you had decided differently. By dwelling on this, you can maybe learn to make better decisions in the future. If there is more to regret than this, then I am also missing part of my brain.

  2. March 25, 2012 at 9:52 am

    You’re simply more rational than many of us. I think you’ve hinted at why this is both a plus and a minus: you don’t enjoy art. A lot of what happens, I think, when we are deeply moved by paintings or songs or poems, is triggering of emotions that are not necessarily useful. In fact, a lot of art has something to do with regret. Every musical culture I know of has some popular genre that is based entirely on wallowing in regret, nostalgia, self-pity, for example!

    • March 25, 2012 at 9:56 am

      Hmm.. but I *do* absolutely respond to and love music, poetry, and dance (not watching dance but dancing myself), and I totally get nostalgia and self-pity. And I’m not all that rational.

      • March 25, 2012 at 1:04 pm

        Actually, I have to confess: I myself do not respond much to visual art either, but respond to music, poetry, and dance (but not really of theater or film or fiction). I think there are just different modalities at work. Also, I have learned (I think this is a skill, not totally innate) to mostly remove regret from my life.

  3. JSE
    March 25, 2012 at 10:37 am

    I’d argue that the fear of having future regrets is more of a problem than the possible mistakes people actually make. That fear seems pretty unpleasant and it seems to cloud people’s decisions: they end up experimenting less and taking fewer risks.

    Why is that a problem? People use feelings of regret to help them avoid taking bad risks and carrying out experiments that are likely to have negative consequences. I mean, let’s say a student gets an opportunity to spend a semester abroad in some crazy place, but they feel like they should stay home and earn more credits towards their major. If they have the experience of regretting a choice like this they made before, or if they have friends who feel regrets like that, they may say “I’m not going to risk passing up an opportunity like this again.” And I don’t see a big problem with that.

  4. Tom Hankins
    March 25, 2012 at 10:47 am

    Regret is for muppets!

  5. Constantine Costes
    March 25, 2012 at 10:50 am

    A couple thoughts:

    1. Sometimes (possibly genuine) expressions of regret can soften blows to be delivered to other people, as in “I regret to inform you …” or “I regret that I will not be able to attend …”
    2. After suffering a great loss, remaining sanguine is easier said than done and most people feel some form of regret, at least temporarily.

  6. mathmomma
    March 25, 2012 at 11:44 am

    I think I want to be you. I would trade away my (admittedly small) connection to art (I do love VanGugh and O’Keeffe) if it meant also losing my (admittedly large) capacity for regret, except I think I’d call it feeling guilty.

    I remember deciding not to feel guilty about x when I was 16, and holding to that decision. But if my actions hurt someone, I do feel guilty. (Cathy, you can email me if you’d like to hear the story about x.)

  7. March 25, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Regret is one of the most powerful ties between our present, our past and our future. The past never comes to me so vividly as when I experience a pang of regret. I never focus so carefully on a decision, on the future course an action may begin, as when I try to avoid repeating a mistake I deeply regret. For me, regret is fundamentally about memory and about imagining the future.

  8. Deborah gieringer
    March 25, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    I’m an artist, and even I don’t always get why people look at art. There are times when I think that museums are kind of like zoos for paintings, etc. I have friends who happily spend hours in a museum, which to me is like engaging (switching from the zoo metaphor) in a hotdog eating contest. I like hotdogs, and I like to taste my hot dogs and I just can’t after, say, the third one. I was an art history major in college, worked summers in a museum, and still, I have no idea what it feels like to “consume” art in this way.

  9. March 25, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    “Let’s assume you a regret decision you’ve made, that you later believe you should have made differently. But when you’re faced with a choice, there are things you can control and things you can’t. There are things you know and things you don’t. There are consequences that you can measure and those you can’t. You do the best you can with the information you have when you make your decision. Then it’s done.”

    A fascinating disclosure of a finely honed mind. However, one needs to be aware that there is a choice, and that doing nothing about something unobserved is in effect a choice that was unknown, that might have been made differently with later wisdom. If I experience regret, it seems to be for lack of awareness at the time, and for things undone rather than done.

  10. kris
    March 25, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    For me regret occurs when the choice made was not obviously optimal. There are situations when you cannot decide which of the options you have are optimal (they are all degenerate), so the choice becomes essentially random. I think the regret creeps in when one realizes that a different random choice may have had possibly better outcomes.

  11. Richard Séguin
    March 25, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    I like paintings from many periods of history. I admire the skill and/or imagination required to put many of these images together, and there’s a special feeling in viewing a very old and frozen in time image that moves me in some way, especially in this age of ephemeral digital objects. However, after an hour or two strolling slowly through a museum I start getting that leaden calf muscle sensation … I’m guessing that if you don’t like viewing images frozen in time that reading Proust would be torture for you.

    I try not dwelling too much on past mistakes. It’s important to analyze your mistakes, or mistakes of others, but too much of that does not help you move forward in life. There were a couple of incidents that happened when I was a young kid that occasionally pop up in my thoughts and cause a wince, but I can always reassure myself that I learned from them, am now a wiser person, and I move on. It is reasonable, as JSE seems to say, to fear having future regrets, because it helps you focus on making more intelligent choices. A squirrel, intent on moving from one tree to another, will pause and study the branches in the current tree to map out an optimal path to the end of some branch proximal to a branch on the other tree to which they can jump. (They’re pretty good at this but sometimes make mistakes and have to double back.) On the other hand, an extreme example of fearing future regrets is the paralyzing attitude that every choice I make now limits my future possibilities. (I could veer off into philosophy here and discuss whether or not this even makes sense, but won’t.) Moderation is a good strategy here.

  12. Bertie
    March 26, 2012 at 3:12 am

    A very unusual and most interesting post!
    FWIW, like you I don’t do regret but I do love visual art.

  13. Leila Schneps
    March 26, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    I get serious feelings of regret when I blow up at my kids. I wish I could control that, but I can’t always. At my age, I no longer believe in the possibility of now becoming another kind of person who never blows up. I try not to, but occasionally my temper gets the better of me. It certainly isn’t a decision, but I still regret it. If you’ve ever had a fight with one of your kids and then felt bad about it, then you know what regret is all about. If you haven’t had one, then you’re so lucky!

    • March 26, 2012 at 6:46 pm

      Leila,

      What an honest person you are (and have always been)!

      You are not the only person that has explained this kind of regret to me. It is definitely something I can understand.

      xoxo
      Cathy

  14. Archer
    March 27, 2012 at 2:06 am

    I have to say I’m pretty shocked by this thread.

    Inability to feel regret is ultimately a lack of empathy. It’s one thing to say you don’t regret decisions that may have hurt you, but to say you regret nothing is saying that you also don’t regret actions that hurt others. If you really mean what you say, it means you could run over a child and not regret it.

    If this is true, you are sick.

    • March 27, 2012 at 5:04 am

      Actually, I am extremely empathetic. I’d even say I’m empathetic to a fault, because I often find my empathy for other people overriding my own feelings (or rational decisions), which isn’t always the right thing to do. Empathy prevents me from saying things that would hurt other people, or getting anywhere close to running over a child, so maybe there is a link between the two. Thank you for that interesting point.

  15. March 27, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    I think some of the above comments are mixing up regret (dwelling on a suboptimal past decision) with guilt (feeling sorry about having done something which hurt other people). Not being able to feel guilt would be much more disturbing than not being able to feel regret.

  16. pro
    May 26, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    我一直记着马克吐温的一句话:Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the tnhigs that you didn’t do than by the ones you did so. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

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