When someone says “I have no regrets,” they could be describing how they feel, or prescribing how they’d like to feel. They could be saying, “I did everything right,” or they could be saying, “I choose not to focus on my regrets because I don’t think regret is worthwhile.” The position of this essay is that regret is a natural experience, not a sign of weakness or disorder, and that while we shouldn’t overemphasize regret, we shouldn’t shy away from it either. We should confront it.

One of the reasons why regret is difficult to sort out is that we’re in the habit of collapsing our past, present, and future selves into a single “I,” and using that same word to refer to all of them. But if we think of these temporal selves as separate entities, we can perceive their relationships more clearly. In doing so, we can perhaps gain a deeper understanding of regret that will lead to better ways of processing it and moving past it.

For a person to experience regret, there must be two selves involved, at least: there’s the current self, the one who is doing the remembering and feeling the distress, and there’s a past self, the one who made some kind of mistake, the one who behaved in a way that the current self wishes had been different. Perhaps this is the most common understanding of regret, that it’s a relationship between only two selves, where the present one is upset at the past one. In this view, regret is cured when the present self forgives the past self.

But regret is often more complex than this: it may hinge on a third self, an early, aspiring self. That’s the self who formed an ambition or made a promise sometime before — days, months, or years before — the erring, mistaken self reneged on that promise or failed to realize the ambition, and even further before the present self remembered the whole course of events and felt sorry about it. When regret is stubborn, when regret won’t go away, this might be because the present self is attempting to forgive the erring, mistaken self without also mending its relationship with the early, aspiring self.

If you were heading to the airport and you chose to hire a cab instead of taking a bus, but the cab broke down and you missed your flight, you might regret choosing the cab. This might seem like the simplest form of regret, where there are only two selves involved: the present self is looking back and wishing that the past self had made a one-time, spur-of-the-moment decision in a different way. The present self feels “angry” at the past self for an inopportune choice — “Why did I have to pick that cab?” — even though the present self knows that the past self had no way to see the future. Forgiveness, here, requires the present self to recognize that the past self was fallible, and was only acting with the limited information at hand.

But even if you accept that hiring the cab was a sensible choice at the time, and that the delay was unforeseeable, the feeling of regret might not dissolve so easily. That’s because this regret might actually be the complex kind, with a third self in the picture. It’s complex regret if you are also thinking about the earlier self who excitedly planned the trip, the one who meticulously packed each bag — remembering all essential toiletries, medications, devices and their cables, changes of clothes — the one who planned an adventurous itinerary at the destination, and the one who intended to leave for the airport four hours early so that any transit delay could be accomodated. It’s complex regret if you are imagining how disappointed and angry the early, aspiring self would be to learn the outcome. All that work and planning? Wasted. The promise to leave four hours early? Broken.

The present self can forgive the erring, mistaken self — the one who picked an option that happened to cause trouble — but the present self still has to contend with the early, aspiring self, who now lives in the mind as a sad, angry, offended, and disapproving character.

What are the present self’s options for making amends with the early, aspiring self? How can the present self reconnect with that hopeful self whose ambition has been frustrated, that hopeful self who would be crushed or enraged to learn of the outcome that actually came to pass?

Instead of reconnecting with the past self, of course, the present self could try to forget. Forgetting is possible because the past self has no independent existence, no life of its own aside from the present self’s choice to imagine it. The present self could abandon the past and move on.

The present self could also reexamine the past self’s identity: who was that person, really? Would the past self really be so angry and upset, or would the past self show more understanding and acceptance than the present self is currently imagining?

A third approach is perhaps the simplest, the most powerful, and the most difficult. The present self could cultivate love for the past self. The present self could take a stance of warmth, openness, and admiration for that hopeful and well-organized person who booked the trip. The present self could imagine the early, aspiring self, who’s now angry and disappointed, and say to that person, “I love you. I admire you. I respect you.”

If the present self were to issue a monologue following this third approach, it might go like this: “I see the earlier version of myself who excitedly planned the trip, the one who meticulously packed each bag, the one who planned an adventurous itinerary at the destination, and the one who intended to leave for the airport four hours early so that any delay could be accommodated. I admire that person’s hope, energy, and good planning. I know that person would be very disappointed by what happened later. I know that person might be angry at me because I didn’t leave as early as planned, and then I made a choice that happened to result in disaster. But even if that person is angry and upset at me now, I love that person.”

Complex regret, we’re ready to observe, is a kind of break between the present self and the past self. It happens when the present self cannot love the past self because fear is getting in the way. It happens when the present self is afraid of the past self’s anger, when the present self is intimidated by the past self’s high expectations and lofty intentions, when the present self is paralyzed by the past self’s imagined disapproval.

To reconnect with the past self, the present self must overcome fear and cultivate the same sort of courageous love that Jesus preached:

“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)

What is the relevance of this passage, where Jesus speaks of external enemies, in considering one’s own past self? The past self is not a true “enemy” of the present self — perhaps a better word is “antagonist” — but the past self has the same effect on the present self that an enemy would have: the past self causes fear in the present self. That fear is the essence of complex regret: that fear is an obstacle that stops the present self from loving the past self. The present self imagines being hated or disdained by the past self. For the present self to harbor love in this context, the present self needs courage, the same courage that anyone would need when following Jesus’s proclamation: “Love your enemies… do good to them that hate you.”

If we take a break from thinking about past and present selves for a moment and turn our attention to other people “out there” in the world, we can likely find some individuals who inspire fear in us, some whom we’d struggle to love, even though they are not our enemies in the classic sense. To identify such a person, think of any quality or an asset that you value and then imagine someone who’s superior to you in that regard. If you care about wealth, pick a person who’s wealthier; if you care about beauty, pick a person who’s more radiant and alluring; if you care about musical ability, a person who’s more skillful, confident, and creative as a musician; if you care about scholarship, a person who has published and been cited more widely; if you care about popularity, a person who has more friends; if you care about physical prowess, a person who’s younger, stronger, faster, and more coordinated.

Now imagine that this person has low regard for you. Perhaps they don’t think much of your current abilities. Or perhaps they’re disappointed in you. They don’t respect you or the choices you’ve made. Perhaps they gave you some advice at one time and you didn’t take it. They warned you against your current path and their warning turned out to be right.

This person may not be an enemy who’s out to harm you, but you still feel fear when they come to mind. They intimidate you and disapprove of you. They make you feel guilty. They remind you of your shortcomings. How can you love them? How can you feel a sense of affection, admiration, and generosity toward them? How can you practice that same kind of love that Jesus advocated when he said “Love your enemies.” It’s hard, right? This person makes you afraid, and it’s not easy to love when you’re afraid.

Not easy, but possible. You could try a thought experiment: imagine a science fiction scenario in which you and your antagonist were the last surviving humans on planet earth after a catastrophe. All of that person’s superior ability is worthless now and all of their disapproval is totally irrelevant, since both of you will soon die. In this context, you could love this person as a fellow human — the only companion you’ve got.

More generally, we can love people who make us afraid if we can focus on their common humanity. And among all those people who make us afraid, we’ll likely find a few of our own past selves in the lot. The intimidating, disapproving person you imagined just now — you might have a past self who resembles that person uncannily. Whatever you care about, whether it’s creativity, scholarship, wealth, romance, beauty, strength, community — there may have been a time when you were doing better in that regard, or had more of that particular asset, or possessed more opportunities in that arena than you do now. There may have been a time when your dreams or intentions were grander than what actually materialized. And so there’s probably an early version of yourself who intimidates you, because they were better than you at something that’s still important to you. There’s probably an early version of yourself who “disapproves” of you, because their vision for what you could become was not realized by you. If you’re afraid of that earlier self, the fear probably makes it hard for you to love them. In this case, you may be experiencing the complex form of regret that cannot be cured by simply forgiving an inopportune choice made in the past, but it can be cured, perhaps, with courageous love. It can be cured, perhaps, if you can embrace that past self, even knowing that you let them down and even imagining that they’re angry at you… if you can simply and unconditionally love them.

Here is the situation in my own life that inspired the observations I’ve described here. A few weeks ago, I was randomly reminiscing when I noticed something odd. A positive memory which “should” have brought a smile to my face was instead having the opposite effect: it was actually making me cringe. I wondered why that should be.

In this happy memory, I’m sitting with a group of musicians arranged in a circle. We all have guitars in our laps. One by one, around the circle, we’re sharing songs that we’ve written. I’ve just performed a humorous song that I had written in a workshop earlier that day. This is happening in the context of a weekend-long songwriting retreat. I had promised the workshop leader that I would refine the song and perform it again later, and now I’ve successfully done my homework. Everyone in the circle laughed and sang along with me and now they’re applauding my song. I know everyone’s name and they know mine and we’re all having a great time making music together.

Why did this memory upset me? It confronted me with an early, aspiring self, the one who signed up for that retreat, dusted off his guitar and practiced a lot and wrote some new songs and got himself to the venue and made all those connections with other musicians in the hopes of staying in touch afterwards and making much more music in the months after the retreat.

Six months later, I’ve barely picked up my guitar or used my voice, I haven’t written any new songs, and the camaraderie I experienced at the retreat seems like a distant memory. So I’m feeling regret. I regret the way I lost momentum after the retreat and fell out of practice again.

To be sure, I forgive myself for what happened. And if I try to explain it, there are good reasons. In the time since the retreat, I’ve been taking care of a parent. That’s been pretty demanding. I’ve been writing a lot of essays, and holding down a job, and a relationship. I’ve been away from home a lot. I could only do so much. I’m human. I’ve still got my guitar and my voice and the potential to write songs: nothing is lost.

What I notice though, is that self-forgiveness doesn’t fully resolve my sense of regret because I still have my early, aspiring self to contend with. How do I reconnect with that person who attended the retreat with such high hopes that it would initiate a new phase of active music making?

When I examine the happy memory more closely, I see myself sitting with my guitar in a circle of friends, but the memory takes a jarring, imaginary turn: it’s as if my past self is trapped there, in a plaster body cast, stuck, frozen, with no way to move or escape. The cast is prickly and uncomfortable. It’s as if that past version of me is suspended at that particular moment in time, with no way to proceed into the future. His efforts and plans and forward-movement come to an end right there.

If I allow my imagination to continue freely in this way, I see myself in danger, needing to be rescued from that plaster cast. Seeing my past self in danger causes me anxiety now. But I’m also afraid of that guy in the cast. There’s a sense that my past self — stuck there, with no way to move — would be upset with the current me, for abandoning him, for leaving him there for so long.

That guy sitting there in a joyful musical circle, guitar in hand, singing and laughing until the cast appeared around him: he intimidates me because he’s better at making music than I am right now, and he has more active friendships than I do right now. I’m rusty and haven’t picked up the guitar or used my voice in six months and I haven’t been very social in that time either. He’s more extroverted and more connected. He’s doing better than I am, in various dimensions that are still important to me. This makes me afraid of him and how he might disapprove of me.

So what has happened here? I’ve made an antagonist or an enemy out of my past self. I envy him and am afraid of him. I’m frustrated because I can’t easily explain my evolution to him, nor can I “rescue” him by immediately resurrecting all of his intentions and goals. There’s a gap between us.

To close that gap, what I can do is to love him. I can say: “OK past self, you’re better than me. You had goals and plans that I didn’t live up to. You are disappointed in me. You don’t approve of what I did with the opportunities you created. I can’t explain all the choices I made. And I can’t promise that I’m going to make it all right and do exactly what you would have wanted to me to do. But it’s OK. I’m going to start by loving you.” And once I can love my past self again, it’s easier to reconnect with what he cared about and pick up some of the efforts that he started.

No one wants to be afraid of their past self. No one sets out to conceive their past self as the “enemy” or antagonist of their current self. But sometimes that’s how we actually feel. When this emotional scenario befalls us, the best thing we can do is to follow Jesus’s advice, “Love thy enemy.” In this way, we can change the relationship that we have with our past self. An enemy can become a friend. A feeling of regret can find a cure. We can move forward. ■

Comments ༄