I’ve been thinking a lot about regret lately, in connection with children. Children are thought to have “innocence” but at some point they “lose it.” This is metaphorical talk for an interesting psychological pattern that we see confirmed again and again. For instance, child soldiers lose their innocence almost right away, because they are told to deal death, and the psychological scars that leaves are deep and immediate.

But what is this innocence that we lose? What is it and how does it get lost, INEVITABLY in the process of getting older? I think the answer has something to do with exposure to sustained and complex types of pain. I mean, people are initiated into the “real world” where things go wrong, very wrong (and as I mentioned, this is not meant to deny that things go very wrong for some kids). But more than that, they go wrong for us in a way we can understand and recognize and appreciate.

When I was a kid, I never knew why my parents cared about the weather. When we would go on trips, all they ever talked about was the weather; but I couldn’t care less and couldn’t see why anyone would. I think that was part of innocence. Now though, I feel something very powerful and uplifting about a beautiful day, and partly because days like that can’t help but call up in me memories, and extrapolations of people I might have become and ways I could have been.

And this brings me to the title of this post. In a word, you could just say that I have regrets. Nietzsche thought that regret was the mark of a failed life — someone who would choose to “do it all again differently” did not affirm THEIR OWN life, and so retreated into metaphysical fantasies about the way things could have been. I think Nietzsche is kind of right about this, and I try not to have regrets (no doubt I fail), but there is something closely related to regret that is just as weighty or momentous, which is that I think that with age, your divergence from other people starts to increase at a very fast rate. Kids are, I think, kind of the same (someone please show me how this is wrong, it feels too easy). As Kant and others would say, they have no PERSONALITY yet. They are unformed. But part of growing up IS gaining a personality and given life’s diversity, this means becoming very different than other people, even people close in your peer group. Thus, decisions start to matter more and are more understood AS decisions.

Let me be less abstract for a second. What I mean is that as an adult you become aware that choices you made 4 or 5 years ago are coming back to help or haunt you. And as you grow older, your time horizon for assessing decisions becomes massive (as say, when a 60 year old looks back on a choice made when 24) and the older you get, the more filled in and meaningful a single choice becomes. You get to see more of it; more is revealed to you. This distance between you and your decisions, a distance that grows with age, is the stuff of both maturity and regret — they go hand in hand.

I talked with a girl today who said that she decided not to go to her Aunt’s funeral. She liked her aunt fine, but she thought that traveling to the country where the funeral was happening would hurt her studies and rob her of needed focus. She told me straight up and in no uncertain terms that she regretted this. That it was a mistake. This takes a lot of courage, and as I’ve said many times on this blog, honesty with oneself. To admit failure. This is why I think Nietzsche was only partially right. Regret is not weakness but strength, because it is a honest self criticism. In a way, you could say that regret is a flaw that we acknowledge in order to affirm everything that came after it. The sixty year old may regret the decision he made at 24, but after having made it, found a new strength of purpose for all the years subsequent. Such is just the inoculation that error can bring against future pain. After we build enough regret, we become roughly invincible, because we’ve have reconciled ourselves to our own failings. Maybe this is why old people have wisdom, and don’t often seem to fear their death?

All I know is that kids don’t have much regrets because not too much is at stake (though I had a close friend who already has leveled with himself in saying he should have worked harder in college — I find myself wondering if I worked too hard and in a stupid way). As time expands, so does the decisive nature of choices, but with that knowledge also grows our ability to face the future. A very interesting set of evolutions that take place as we age.


1 Response to “Regret”

  1. 1 Eric Lu
    May 13, 2011 at 5:53 am

    Reflective post man. I want to share with you this video I helped make. I think you’ll find it meaningful and relevant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0yQ23l_U0w

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