The Functional Hair Shirt: The Utility of Regret

Let go of regrets, I am told. They are purposeless, serving as an unnecessary and often-overwhelming burden on my day-to-day life, my relationships, and my peace of mind. Even Toad the Wet Sprocket, perhaps my favorite band, sings in opposition to it:

Shame doesn’t become you

There are no mistakes in the final view . . .

For every path you follow there’s another left behind

Every door you don’t kick open there’s a million more to try

And for everything you’ve taught me

Here’s the one I’ve learned the best

There is nothing but the moment

Don’t you waste it on regret

(This is not to say that Toad doesn’t have plenty of songs in which regret is deeply expressed, but I digress.)

Yet I am someone who is wracked with regrets. Now, don’t get ahead of me, I adore my wife and children, and I would refuse any change in my history that turned me away from my life with them. But that doesn’t mean that I do not now live in sadness and shame over the consequences of many choices, made and unmade. In some instances I have failed miserably, shamefully, in some endeavor or other. In others, I have blundered or failed to better appreciate the fallout of particular decisions. I have been too scared to do the right thing, and I have been too brash in doing the wrong thing, and in all these cases, I am now lesser than I ought to be.

So regret, to me, feels entirely justified. And not just the tacit acknowledgement of mistakes, but the true, visceral, feeling of it. Steeping in it.

But emotional residue is one thing. Pointless wallowing is another. Or is it? Carina Chocano at Aeon argues that in a utilitarian culture that insists on a never-look-back attitude, one that treats regret like a vessel-slowing barnacle infestation, the hair shirt has its function:

The assumption is that these ruminations stem from a flaw in my character, or an unresolved trauma, or some questionable behaviourist conditioning. It’s a neurobiological glitch, maybe, or a bad habit. And all of these might apply, but I also think I’m driven by a combination of pragmatism and curiosity. Whenever I come up against a problem, or find myself plagued by questions I can’t answer, my impulse is to lift up the hood of my day-to-day denial and complacency and dive into the intricate circuitry of my past in search of whatever minor gasket malfunction sparked the powder train that eventually blew up the spacecraft. I guess in some way, I’ve come to think of regret as a deductive game that, although it’s almost never fun, will eventually unlock all of life’s mysteries. Is this what I intended to do? Could I have predicted this outcome? How did I get here?

I may indulge in the darkness of regret (okay, I definitely do — see this for example) but I do so, ostensibly anyway, as a guard against repeating mistakes. If the screw-ups of my past did not sting in the present, what would motivate me to improve? If every mistake is “just in the past,” and no longer relevant, how can we reap the advantages of experience?

As Chocano says, “The point of regret is not to try to change the past, but to shed light on the present.” And this is based in reason, rather than mere emotional indulgence. “Mixed feelings are not only what make us human, they’re what make us truly rational,” she writes. I agree.

Of course, there are degrees. As I’ve said, I am prone to wallow, to sicken myself with an overdose of regret. But those of good intentions rarely advise that I turn down the volume of my regrets so that I can better hear the lessons of my past mistakes. Usually, the virtuous thing to do is supposedly to shut them off altogether. I will try to find the middle ground: mine my past for useful data, allow the pain of regret to spur the search, but moderate my exposure so as not to become leaden with shame to the point of immobility.

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