A friend of mine once told me that she had only one regret: a few months previously, she’d bought a pair of trousers, but not the matching jacket. I was stunned. Even a little appalled. Was that it? Was there really nothing else in her life that she regretted? Suspicious as to what lay behind her lack of regret, I wasn’t sure whether to put it down to her charmed life, superficiality, or a complete acceptance of life as it was. And I couldn’t believe any one of those possibilities was actually the case.
At the time, I had mounds of regrets. I wished that I’d studied harder and done more at university; I felt as if I’d passed up useful opportunities which might never come my way again. I felt bad about sleeping with as many boyfriends as I had. I would, on occasion, lie awake at night, mulling over each relationship and detailing the reasons why it had been a mistake. I berated myself for smoking, drinking and not being fitter. I found it nigh on impossible to forgive myself for some of my choices, the mundane and insignificant as well as the major and life-changing.
Being a perfectionist didn’t help. I was bound to fail to live up to the ideal image that I carried around in my head. The messiness of life, the complexity of human interaction, foiled my attempts to Make Life Work in the way that I thought it should. Constantly sensing a gap between what was and what should be, it was difficult to let go of the notion that I’d somehow got it all dreadfully wrong.
It is only when we start to examine our stories more closely that we begin to see the assumptions that underpin our regrets. Regret says I know what should have happened, and it wasn’t that. Regret says I’m in control of life. Regret says I’m responsible for all the choices that I’ve made. Regret believes that it’s up to us how our lives turn out, and so it’s our fault if things aren’t going well. Regret pretends that it knows what’s best; nothing more than fantasy, it is the story of I did wrong and I should have done right.
Slowly, I began to unpick the foundations of the House of Regret. I realised that there was no way I could possibly know what should have happened. That I’m not in control of life. That I don’t know what’s best, and that there is no right or wrong, outside of thought. I stopped believing in the past as some kind of fixed entity, as a place that I’d inhabited and could revisit. The subtle notion that past actions or events could somehow be transmuted by regret ceased to make any sense. I realised that regret keeps the past alive but semi-comatose; it keeps us bound in a dead narrative and prevents us from fully feeling the aliveness of painful emotions. After a while, past memories no longer stirred such uncomfortable emotions; forgiveness gradually came.
Now, I no longer lie awake at night plagued by regrets about boyfriends or things I’ve said or done, not said or not done. Now, I think it was okay that I spent my time at university going to gigs and smoking dope, and I’m even a little impressed that I still managed to churn out some decent essays and get a degree. And when regret does appear, it doesn’t last long, as I’m able to question its very basis. I can watch as the story of me, and what I should or shouldn’t have done, ebbs and flows.
I have held on to one, last, long-standing regret, however. When I was nineteen, I returned home in the holidays to clear out my old room. In two plastic bags were all the letters I’d ever been sent and the diaries that I’d written in every day for seven years, between the ages of eleven and eighteen. My older sister chided me for keeping them, and I put them in the dustbin. I woke up the next morning and went to retrieve them from the bin, already regretting the decision. It was too late. The rubbish had already been collected. It's as if I get to keep the letters and diaries by keeping the regret. And I’m not quite ready to give them up, just yet.