Thursday, February 25, 2010

An Argument against the "No Regrets" Attitude

    Somehow, somewhere, someone popularized the saying and expression of having "no regrets."  It's an attitude that basically looks at everything in a positive light; a choice that even times in your life where you were awkward, petty, cruel or vicious should not be regretted because those moments have led you to become the person that you are today. 
    While I can understand the idea and mentality that one should learn from their mistakes and become a better person afterwards, the idea of not regretting the situations that forced the learning experience seems strange to me.  It also seems selfish.  There are times where I have been needlessly unkind to people that didn't deserve it.  There were times when I have been selfish, thoughtless, lazy and mean-spirited.  Even if I learned to be less selfish, thoughtless, lazy and mean-spirited in the future, how can I not regret having needed a reminder of why I shouldn't treat people poorly?
    When I was about 4 years old, my family was living in Boise, Idaho.  We lived far outside of town, with one neighbor within 10 miles, and a home that was straight out of the frontier.  We had a river that ran through our property, with mountains, forests, lots of snow, and a disgusting hyrbid mix of a dog that used to shit between the floor boards of our deck.  The dog had an entire wilderness in which he could relieve himself, but he would always shit on the deck or in the spot directly by the door of my Dad's truck.  There's no one on the planet that could convince me it wasn't personal.  Anyway, my strongest memory of that time is a case where my Dad was mad at me for something I had done wrong.  I ran to my Mom and she was consoling me.  My Dad saw that I was upset and he felt horrible and tried to make friends.  I looked up at him and yelled "NO!  I only want Mom!" 
    That was 25 years ago and I still remember how badly that hurt my Dad's feelings.  That is something that I regret saying to this day.  I guess the lesson would be think before you speak, but I regret that such an experience was necessary to learn that lesson. 
    There was another case in Junior High School where I was waiting to play basketball with some friends and a few kids that I didn't know.  This was when we all first started noticing girls, and a few of the kids that I didn't know were talking about how they wished they could get some girl to pay attention to them.  I turned to them, and I have NO idea why I did this, but I said, "Like you guys could get girls."  Ignore for the moment that I certainly had zero experience with women and wouldn't know what to do with one if I came across one naked and begging me, but what a flat-out dick thing to say.  They didn't say anything back, but just kind of slunk away.  I regretted it immediately, and still do.  I knew then that you don't treat people like that, and I certainly shouldn't have needed a reminder why not.  I just said it to be an asshole, I guess.  And that brings me to my problem with the "no regrets" attitude.  If you view my comments to those kids or my Dad as a good thing because I learned from it, then you would be placing my education and self-betterment as more important than the pain and hurt that I caused. 
    In my opinion, if you do wrong, then you deserve the regret that you have to feel in the minutes, days, months and years following it and whenever you look back on it.  Viewing every fucked-up thing that you have ever done as some educational, harmless and understandable act just seems to make light of the pain that you caused someone.  Living your life with guilt and sadness over the mistakes that you made can keep you from living a full life in the present.  I am not making the argument that one should let guilt of the past get in the way of their future, but some small acknowledgement in the form of regret seems a worthy enough burden for having betrayed someone's sense of self-worth, confidence or trust. 


Clara said...

I like this post, Martin, and agree with you 100%. Having no regrets, especially when your actions hurt others or undermine their faith in you, is both entirely selfish and utterly naive. It's a way to excuse your conscious for poor decisions and I think that is anti-social behavior. While I'll never be one to discourage a person from living their life, as someone who is repeatedly plagued by the guilt of regrets, as you stated, I would urge them to think twice about the repercussions, especially if other people are involved. I wish to god I was smart enough to consistently do this...

Lissa said...

This was a very thought-provoking post. I've done things I'm not proud of, I've said things that should not have been said in the first place. I wish I could take them all back, but I can't.

Lauren said...

Hey Martin

I just came across your blog and what a great post. I do believe that we should live with a no regrets attitute because we can't change the past. But I also think that we can not just dismiss it with this excuse of "well I can't regret it." The actions we have taken shape who we are today and it is important to look back on life and mostly, not want to change a thing; but everyone messes up somewhere. Thats life. I look forward to following your blog!

Alison said...

OK so i've been trying to come up with a way to articulate the distinction that i immediately make between what you call the 'no regrets' attitude to life and what i feel when i do something i know is wrong and regret it. Hopefully i can get it down in a vaguely coherent manner...

#1 The biggest lesson you learned from saying those things to your dad and those kids is that you made them feel bad, which made you feel bad and that you regretted what you did. You wished you hadn't done it which equates immediately to you trying not to do it again. The regret is what made you learn from it, without it there is nothing making you not want to repeat the experience, hence no lesson would have been learned.

#2 Everyone must learn that actions have consequences, it isn't somehting that humans are born knowing. ALL children require some sort of experience they regret to learn that some actions in the spur of the moment will be detrimental to them, and others, in some way in the long run. Its how you learn to think before you speak, weigh up the consequences of an act first, not act rashly or in the heat of the moment. But it must be learned at some point, so everyone will have some sort of memory like yours with your dad. Don't beat yourself up about it, we all need to experience regret at some point in order to learn that harmful consequences to our actions are possible.

#3 Your self betterment isn't more important than other people's pain. But once you have caused the pain, you need to know not to do it again - hence the social function of regret. Feeling sorry you did something and wishing you hadn't done it feels crap, therefore its in our interests not to act in ways which cause us to feel like that again - the socialising function of regret.

#5 The 'no regrets' attitude as i understand it does not mean you dont feel sorry for certain of your actions. As outlined above feelings of sorrow and distress from your own actions serve a number of important functions both on an individual and wider social level (sorry i sound like a textbook).
But now i draw a distinction between multiple meanings of 'regret'. The first being feeling sorry about, or for, an action. The second being distress or disappointment about something you wish could be different, or in a way longing to change something that is gone.
The 'no regrets' attitude as i see it means not spending undue amounts of time wishing that something had happened differently. This is different to feeling sorry for what you have done. But to quote a cliche, 'whats done is done' and instead of dwelling on things that can't be changed, you should concentrate on making amends where required for what you have done, and doing your best to make sure you dont do it again. This is actually useful to you as a person, and to the society in which you live, instead of continually wishing what you did hadn't happened. It has.
There are decisions i have made in my life that i wouldn't necessarily make the same way again - but that is the point. I wouldn't do it again in the future, because i am sorry for some of the consequences (in one sense of the word i regret them) but i dont waste my time fretting over it and wishing i had done things differently or could go back and change it, because i can't. In this sense of the word i dont 'regret' it. My life is the way it is because i made that choice then, even if i wouldn't again.

Thanks for making me think. And requiring me to pick through my rambling thoughts to try and make sense of them. Not sure i managed it mind...

Tracie said...


I don't believe the "no regrets attitude" and guilt for hurting someone are mutually exclusive.

I believe they are VERY different aspects of living our lives.

A "no regrets attitude" in my opinion, is to live each day in "the present", not dwelling on the past, nor pining away for the future.

We've ALL said and done things that we wish we could take back, that's just part of being human, and learning. If you can "right the wrong", do so. By writing a letter or calling the hurt party. If that's not possible, go out of your way to do something nice for someone who crosses your path now... even of it's as "small" as a smile to someone who passes by you. You just might make their day!

Martin said...

Clara - I wish I was smart enough to do that too.

Lissa - Thanks. I suppose we all have those.

Lauren - Thanks for coming by and commenting. I think you're right that it is important to not let guilt get in the way of living your life in the present.

Alison - I agree with the conclusion you came to. "No Regrets" should mean that we don't spend undue amount of time and energy with guilt from past actions. That would cripple our thoughts and actions in the present. I guess hearing that statement of "no regrets" always just rankles at me a bit, since I picture someone just leaving carnage in their wake and skipping on by without a backwards glance.

Momma - Good talking to you about this last night. We're on the same page ;)

Amanda West said...

Great post.

Me and my dad had a conversation a while back about regretting things yet not wanting to change the outcome of things.

It feels kind of like an oximoron, I guess.