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The Cultivation of Regret

Do you ever wonder about what might have been? What if I had taken that job? What if I had moved to that city or stayed in that city? What if I had pursued that relationship? What if I had put my kids in that school? What if I had encouraged that friendship, chosen that church, made that crucial decision at that crucial moment? How would my life have been different? What painful pitfalls might have I avoided? What pleasures and surprises might I have missed out on? What doors may have closed never to open again? What have I missed out on by virtue of choosing what I have chosen when I have chosen it?

I recently listened to an interview on CBC’s Tapestry with British psychotherapist Adam Philips called “Lamenting the Road Not Taken.” It was a fascinating conversation. Phillips has written a book called Missing Out where he probes the human tendency to live two parallel lives: our real lives, and the hypothetical (happier) lives we would be living if we would have done things differently. We tend to assume, says Phillips, that if we had chosen a different spouse, a different career, a different city to live in, etc. that we would be happier, healthier, and more fulfilled than we are in our real lives. Our hypothetical lives thus serve as both a reproach and an escape. They are a judgment on the decisions we have made and a means of escaping the life we in fact are living. We can always take refuge in what we might have been.

Why do we do this?

There are a number of reasons. Among the more obvious, is that we live in a cultural context where, from our earliest years, we are marinated in the myth of limitless possibilities. Anything is possible, we are told. Anyone can be a president, a pop star, an athlete, a millionaire, a princess, an action hero who saves the day… Everyone can change the world… The sky is the limit! For everyone.

Of course, this is manifestly not true. Some things really aren’t possible for everyone. Not everyone can be a superstar, not everyone can stand out, not everyone can achieve their dreams, no matter what those in positions of influence and power, those who have a vested interest in keeping us restless and motivated, might wish for us to believe. Some of us will simply lead relatively ordinary, simple lives of modest influence and “success.” Some of us won’t have many friends or be very popular. Some of us will never have access to the halls of power and influence. But this is not what we are told. We are presented instead with an illusion of perpetual bliss and fulfillment and then we are crushed when we realize that the world isn’t like that.

This is exacerbated by our online culture. A quick tour through Facebook-land will quite quickly yield the conclusion that everyone out there is smarter, prettier, happier, more competent and creative, and generally having quite a bit better time in life than we are. To live online is to almost constantly be in the process of up-selling ourselves to ourselves and to those in our digital sphere of influence. Most of us can only handle so much of hearing how awesome everybody else’s life is—oh look, so and so published a book! Or went to Cuba… again! Or married a spectacularly beautiful individual! Or moved somewhere much nicer than where I live!—without starting to wonder… What if I had… ?

And, of course, there is religion. Ah, yes, religion… According to Phillips, religion is one of the chief culprits in making us dissatisfied and endlessly oriented toward the future. “Religions have failed us,” he says, “by promising us the illusions of better futures when in fact we should be focusing on better ‘presents.’” Religion has contributed to giving us the wrong picture of what a life should be. What we need is to simply acknowledge reality for what it is. Rather than endlessly living our hypothetical lives, rather than cultivating a kind of wistful regret as a coping strategy for our less-than-satisfactory lives, rather than projecting all of our hopes on to some imaginary future (or idealized past), we ought to focus on accepting our lives for what they are right now and learning from the decisions we have made.

Well, yes. And no.

Yes, the challenge toward contentment is a valuable and desperately necessary one—especially in a culture that is as restless and unsettled as ours, a culture where we are always looking to the next thing (a vacation?  hot yoga?  a trip to the mall? a new job?) or the next person to finally complete and fulfill us. The message to focus more on the present than on some imagined future where we are different (better) people doing different (more fulfilling) things with different (more exciting and interesting) people than we are right now, is surely a timely and welcome one indeed.

But I am not prepared to write off the value of imagining a better future entirely, whether in this life or the next. I happen to think that Phillips simultaneously overvalues the present and undervalues the future when he counsels us to forget about religion and just focus on the lives we are currently living. If we really believe that all we have is the present, then we really do have to make sure we get it right here and now. We have such a limited amount of time, after all, so we must wring out of it every last drop of conceivable pleasure and fulfillment that we possibly can. We can’t afford any mistakes or bad decisions! The clock is ticking… This is my only chance… I’m not happy enough yet!

Whatever else might be said about how religious institutions and religious beliefs have oriented their adherents toward the future—and I am very aware that there is much that is negative and damaging here—it should be acknowledged that, at their best, they have promoted lives of gratitude and contentment here and now based upon the conviction that God is good, and has good plans both for the present and the future. Understood in this way, hope for the future can be profoundly liberating. It can free us from the tyranny of the present and the perceived imperative to be happy… now!!! It can free us from the felt need to extract every moment of pleasure from a world that is always leaving us behind.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tyler #

    “But I am not prepared to write off the value of imagining a better future entirely, whether in this life or the next.”

    I share this sentiment. In fact I believe that it is and cannot help to be the core of being. Bridging the gap of who one is and how they ought to be requires the creation of some other ideal self. The same thing applies for buildings, cities, art, sports… you name it.

    There is no point lamenting on other roads and paths that could have been taken. “It is incorrect to assume that because an ideal is created it will be met. That is why within all our ideals, no matter the subject, we should have imagination without expectation.

    March 15, 2013
    • Imagination without expectation, eh? I like that expression. But i wonder… is it really possible for us? It seems to contain within itself the seeds of a near constant state disappointment. We create our ideals and they continually go unrealized. It would seem to take a strong and persistent soul indeed to continue imagining without expecting.

      March 16, 2013

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