Regret has its redeeming qualities. We’re humans; we’re helplessly, eternally flawed and so we mess up – it’s part of life, and perfection is overrated and uninteresting anyway. We do things we wish we hadn’t, or that we wish we’d done differently. But it seems that more than wishing we could avoid making mistakes, we want to live regret-free. We have this desire to come away from every fumbling error we make with the same confidence we take away from our most shining moments, and I don’t think that’s necessary.
Not all regrets ought to be crippling or burdensome in an ever-present way. I regret things that I’ve learned from. We often reflect on mistakes we’ve made and ultimately ascertain that we wouldn’t undo it because it taught us something valuable. For me, there are things I’ve learned from that, if given the option, I’d still take back if I could. That’s not to devalue the lesson, but to acknowledge that part of my learning from my experience is realizing the consequences of my mistake, and therefore, wishing I could have avoided it. But it’s a moot point because that’s not how life works, so ultimately all that remains is what we choose to learn. Regret, underdog that it is, does carry some value with it:
1. It means your instincts are up and running properly. It indicates you recognize an action is out of line with your character or standards, and that means your character and standards are something you are conscious of and value.
2. You recognize the need for a change. Regrets can highlight problem patterns or areas in our lives that are particularly in need of our attention.
3. You learn, of course. Learning from life and what often seems like its cruel sense of humor has become one of the most meaningful experiences for me because I realized the opportunity to learn is constant. This means that even my worst moments are not for nothing – recognizing that can lessen the blow, and bestow a lesson.
4. You’re better prepared for next time. Now, when you find yourself in a similar situation, you’ll know what to do. Or, at least, what not to do, which is sometimes what really matters.
5. You’re not jaded. Regretting things means you have the capacity to feel remorse and compassion and a whole other slew of feelings that, while unpleasant at times, are high on the list of motivating emotions.
These days, it seems regret comes with a negative connotation, and our generation in particular rebels against the very idea of regret in so many ways. We retaliate against the notion that we might ever do something that we wish we hadn’t, as if admitting this exposes a weakness in our blasé, no concern for consequences, #yolo, chain mail armor. To admit we have erred, have done something we’re embarrassed by or ashamed of, is to imply to others that we care what they or society thinks – a horribly embarrassing and shameful admission. It sends the message that we are affected by opinions imposed upon us.
In some ways, the strength that comes with the “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me” attitude is empowering. It’s the “I crashed my car into a bridge, I don’t care, I love it” way of life. I love that song, and sometimes I yearn for the freedom in that reckless abandon, but in reality if I crashed my car into the bridge, I’d care and I’d hate it. The slew of .gifs and memes with a variation on the “all out of f*cks to give” phrase speaks to the nearly unanimously chosen defense mechanism of our era: don’t care, sorry not sorry. We paint this apathetic demeanor in coats of coolness – look how glamorous it is to not give a shit. We admire it and fetishize it; if only I could care as little as the people who care the least. It’s the modern day mentality of a badass, and if you don’t care, you don’t get hurt so you’re free to continue living in careless badassery, undeterred by damage afflicted upon yourself, loved ones, or strangers.
It’s a slippery slope, though. Because if you’re gonna go all out in not caring, you will eventually find that mentality seeps beyond the parameters of the confines in which it began – protection against the judgment of others and the agonizing disappointment in ourselves — into less justifiable territory. It facilitates nonchalance toward others’ feelings, and from there, it is far more difficult to discern whether you act as self-defendant or instigator. If I’m unfazed by what other people think, then what’s to stop me from not only not caring what others say about me, but what I say about others? The transformation from unaffected soldier to bully is often unnoticed until it’s too late. Because then, if you want to fix it, you have to care. And to start caring after you’ve tread a damaging path of cavalier cruelty will be far more painful than to care along the way.
It’s as if you go through life with your nerves numbed, thinking that then, no injury can hurt you. True. But you also sustain wounds you would have tended to, and therefore ultimately suffered less and healed faster. Instead, they’re left unacknowledged to fester. Imagine then your nerves suddenly switch back on – imagine how the deluge of pain would crush you – both in actuality and in its searing, livid reminder of your stupidity. A daunting option, for sure.
The alternative is to continue to live with unfeeling nerves, even after realizing that to live in such a manner is not truly living at all because pain not only makes us appreciate its absence, but it serves a purpose. It is part of being alive, and often, it is what keeps us alive, inflicting small injury upon us in the name of preventing our own self-destruction. Realizing that cleansing yourself of caring was actually a toxic act, and finding that you may not be able to survive the transition back to feeling, is a truly saddening dead-end. It is the moment when there are no options but to live hollow, sheathed in endless regrets you can’t fathom acknowledging and cloaked in the shadow of the biggest regret of all: never regretting anything. An ironic and unfortunate impasse if ever there was one. And not the way we are meant to live.
The same is true emotionally. People act as if not caring is cool but I don’t buy it. Not caring is cowardly and catastrophic. Not caring is at the crux of so many of the problems that plague humanity. Not caring is weak and selfish. Caring is a heavy load to bear, sure, but it makes you strong and present. It makes life meaningful. It gives life weight. It means that you won’t live unconsciously, sacrificing your integrity and character for armor that’s corroding from its own cause. A real badass cares and proclaims it proudly. They acknowledge that sometimes – people say things or do things and it hurts. And then they recover. They acknowledge that they do things they wish they hadn’t, that they hurt people they love and ache from the ache they caused, that they want love and respect from people they love and respect, and that they want to treat things and people that matter with care because otherwise it’s really hard to reconcile what we are even doing on this planet.
So if you’re going through life and you have a handful of mistakes and regrets and moments you’d rather never reminisce on but you’ve learned and survived and improved, then you’ve got the makings of what it really means to be cool. There are far greater legacies to have than never having cared, and there are endless things to get impassioned about. So, look around at all the f*cks I give – there are a lot of them, and I like it that way.