The Best Regrets: An Exploration Of Freedom, Fear and Feeling Good

“You were what you were and you are what you are. Fuck that regrets bullshit.”
― Irvine Welsh, Porno

What do you regret? Tough question isn’t it? Most people find this one pretty difficult to answer, at least up front. It takes a while to figure out what your regrets are or, if they’re very obvious, to admit them. How many times have you heard the old adage, “No regrets”? They’re a part of life our parents, teachers and peers remind us should be avoided. What does regret actually mean? It’s to feel sorry, disappointed, distressed or remorseful about something: “I regret not making up with her before she left and now it’s too late.” To regret something is to remember with a feeling of loss or sorrow something from the past; to mourn. It denotes mental distress like grief, anguish, woe and heartbreak do, in varying degrees of intensity. If you’re a regretter, you’re likely to be having a painful thought or feeling, a challenging emotion ranging from an unpleasant sense of dissatisfaction over something you’ve lost to a much stronger feeling of self-reproach regarding something you’ve done.

umbrella-170962_960_720.jpgRegrets were always something I was warned to avoid making, but as with many things in life, I grew to discover an alternative – to live without fear of regret, with honesty, empathy, integrity and equality as values and then to learn from any mistakes as a healthy, imperfect person using regret as a powerful ally. Every decision, whether judged as good, bad, stupid, selfish or misguided has led me to where I am today. I believe it’s better to judge where I stand today than where I stood ten or twenty years ago, because it’s far easier to change today and tomorrow than yesterday. That doesn’t mean I agree that regrets are futile.

Wisdom can flow from hindsight if our values, beliefs and morals are intact and our biases are kept at bay. Self-doubt, insecurity, selfish needs and other peoples’ excessive expectations of us can disrupt our ability to make decent decisions. Sometimes, only by looking back at our lives can we properly understand how, why and when something regretful happened, how it affected us and those around us and what, most importantly, we can do about it now. Hindsight is insight.

A lot of people refer to this phenomenon of assessing the past as experience and it can be gained from our own adventures in the big wide world or from the adventures of others – even fictional characters. I bet any money you can think of five or six characters from books who taught you something.

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This is one my all-time favourite quotes:

“One of the greatest regrets in life is being what others would want you to be, rather than being yourself.”
― Shannon L. Alder

It perfectly demonstrates one of the principles I’ve learned to live my life by – the first in the following list.

Be true to your own beliefs, hopes and values and never try to be someone else, especially not to impress others…
I remember being fourteen when I first listened to Kurt Cobain’s music. Very quickly, I felt overwhelmed with this desire to be like him – artistic, creative, poetic, different, rebellious. I messed up my hair to match his, wore the clothes he wore, acted more grungy and moody to fit in with the Nirvana crew at school – then I discovered Kurt was a depressed, suicidal drug-user and realised I’d better discover my own path to artistic freedom and creative expression.

Not every teenager has their head screwed on the wrong way…
At seventeen, I probably seemed like a fairly typical teenager: into loud music and grungy clothes, a bit reckless but not dangerously so, smoking and drinking a little in an attempt to be grown up, going to clubs and staying over at friend’s houses to squeal at horror films. A neighbour once looked at my long dark hair and black eyeliner and said to mum, “Teenagers, huh? All got their heads screwed on the wrong way, haven’t they?” She stuck up for me, telling it the way she saw it: “She’s quite mature for her age, actually,” and now I look back, I think she was right. I did somehow have a lot figured out. My grades were good. I was kind to my friends. I looked after my grandmother, taught disadvantaged kids to dance, volunteered on a children’s ward and ate all my vegetables, even sprouts. I was principled in many ways, with a respect for others that perhaps belied my age. I sometimes look back and, rather than give myself advice from the future (the way many self-help books tell us to do), I let the teenager I once was give me advice from the past.

That work is not about climbing ladders…
When I first landed a ‘proper’ office job, mum said, “You can rise through the ranks, gain respect, climb the ladder.” Her heart was in the right place, but even people in a generation that’s only twenty or so years apart from our own can look at the world in a very different way. Mum wanted respect for me, to see my career progress, to watch me benefit from a gradual, steady increase in the quality of job titles that would now be bestowed upon me if I worked hard and impressed the boss. The problem was, she was projecting into me what she had wanted thirty years ago for herself. She didn’t appreciate (or initially accept) that my goal wasn’t to remain seated at the same desk, toiling for the same company, studying the same subject I’d done at University for my entire working life. I wanted new chapters in the work story, wanted to shift my perspective from pure science into creative thought. Climbing ladders is not that useful if you don’t relish what’s waiting for you on the top rung.

There are some things that matter and some things that don’t…
Now more than ever, what we care about in life is a good indicator of our core humanity. So many people in my neighbourhood drive expensive cars, want the latest technology, eat out at fancy restaurants and wear only the most fashionable brands or corporate suits. Owning those things is pleasurable, but far from essential. Wanting an excess of quality products is actually detrimental; it erodes our value system and our emotional intelligence. It turns our respect for others into a respect for inanimate objects. We get lost in a haze of luxury, forgetting the many millions of human beings who still think water is a Godsend. Our passions in life, our closest relationships, our health and our ability to explore the world and communicate with others from different walks of life, helping them if they’re in need, matter far more than material possessions, keeping up with the neighbours, financial success or celebrity status. I’m not saying turn into the Buddha, renounce all worldly goods and start whipping yourself under a tree in baking temperatures, but just take a moment to evaluate what really matters to you in life – and if it’s an Audi TT or heat magazine, you might want to re-evaluate.

Learning doesn’t stop after school…
This applies to so many areas of a fulfilling, balanced life. No one should be forced to do a job that offers nothing in the way of learning new skills, but I believe learning is about far more than training in the workplace. I think adults should be encouraged, at every available opportunity, to continue their education in a wide variety of new disciplines, to expand and deepen their knowledge of the world. Only by learning about an incredibly diverse range of topics – like how to meditate, more about history and ancient civilisations, more about war and human rights and the legal system, more about other cultures, space travel, climate change and the future of the universe – have I felt truly incorporated into the society I’m part of. Science, languages, geography and maths are all fascinating school subjects, but life is more than a curriculum.

To have patience and priorities…
Some of the best things in life take a lot longer than you think they will to achieve. Working hard isn’t always working wise. Writing has taught me both of these principles. I can sit down and write anything at any time – no restrictions; no boss breathing down my neck – but if I don’t think artfully and carefully about the point of what I’m doing and where I want it to lead, I can lose track of time, forget the essence of my passion and end up not achieving anything useful. Working calmly and with clear goals is far better than rushing around like a blue-arsed fly and getting nowhere. All those stories of great writers being these wild people with no agenda, taking drugs all day and lying around in the bathtub – they’re just cool legends. Their way of life doesn’t suit the rest of us. Practical doesn’t have to be powerless. My best work hasn’t come from being carefree; it’s come from being caring, from thinking about what I’m trying to say and working effectively to ensure I say it.

You can design and build the world you want to live in…
For a long time, I took it for granted that I had very little control over my environment, that whatever drifted my way, good or bad, was inevitable. Job opportunities were there to be taken, not found. Relationships were there to be accepted, not shaped. My home was whatever I could afford in a location that suited family as much as myself. Peace of mind was something to be hoped for, not necessarily assured. Over time, I began to realise that I could be a much more active participant in the direction my life took. By writing down what I wanted from a job and not just reading the employer’s job description – what they wanted from me – I was able to secure work that fitted with my values and personality as much as my qualifications and experience fitted into their role. By recording difficulties in relationships and reading around the subject of improving communication and understanding manipulation, I was able to identify those people in my life who were causing the most trouble, either purposefully or subconsciously, and deal with their behaviours in a way that was healthier for me and, occasionally, even for them. I chose where to live based on my own needs, in line with my love of the countryside, but with easy access to my favourite city. You guessed it: peace of mind started to follow the other three.

To not give a shit what other people think…
This sounds rebellious – maybe a bit of Cobain coming out in me – but it’s a hugely important principle. As kids, most of us learn to please our parents, teachers and friends and, to some extent, it’s healthy to consider what others think of us and our choices and actions. Their opinions and advice can be very valuable. But constantly worrying if we are doing the ‘right’ thing based purely on the judgements of others is dangerous. My personal experience of this was when a member of my partner’s family took exception to the idea of me leaving a science job behind (due to a redundancy, not a flippant brain-freeze) and choosing to become a fiction writer. I’d have listened to her opinion and considered her viewpoint had she not rudely added, “I just don’t think I can be proud of you anymore,” to the end of her argument. I later discovered I’d been right to react against the ‘advice’ she’d been so quick to give – slowly her real reasons for disliking my choice came out. She was disappointed and frustrated that she wouldn’t be able to use my science career as a talking point with her family and neighbours anymore. My happiness was less important than her boasting rights. Pride is one thing; trying to influence another person’s life decisions to meet your own needs in another. Plus who in their right mind isn’t proud to have a writer in the family?

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So regrets are interesting. They can act as a conscience or they can consume us; they can help us make decisions or hinder us in choosing. They can be used to guide us and they can even be used against others. The latter – using regret to harness fear or gain compliance – is an area I’ve delved deeper into for fictional purposes. In black comedy, From the Horse’s Mouth, manipulative office manager, Maxwell D. Kalist (loosely based on someone I had the pleasure of working with a few years ago), uses the subtle power of lurking regret to incite aggression from one of his less stable employees, with explosive future results. Safe to say, I thoroughly enjoyed slipping in and out of the minds of both characters. It was a world of fun. My only regret is that I didn’t write the book sooner.

“You’re a man, Ridley, not a mouse. Stand up for yourself! Be counted! Why regret past events when you can influence future ones?”

Kalist’s bold theory is like an elixir.

“I will. I will, Goddamn it, I will!” Obelmäker raves, clenching a fist in front of himself. He has forgotten that the other clerks might be able to see him through the small, partition window. He doesn’t care. He is back inside the fight with Gertrude, just before she sucker-punched him in his belly in their bed – and this time, he is winning!

Kalist speaks quietly, as if brokering a deal. “You know what you should do, Ridley? You should dedicate some private time to Sadāyatana.”

Obelmäker eyes him. He doesn’t know what that means.

Kalist smiles knowingly and speaks with mastery. “It sounds like witchcraft, but it’s good advice. Access yourself spiritually. Learn about the many senses you have. Learn where your powers lie. Trust me – there are more of those inside you than you think – but you’ve learned to mask them, to bury them – to bury your true feelings. We’re built to navigate complex emotions, Ridley. You are a more powerful person than you might have ever imagined.” Kalist watches Obelmäker.

First, he battles in his mind between interest in what Kalist is saying and a bubbling, deep cynicism, but Kalist spots a deeper emotion – a desperately concealed, personal regret and he thinks he knows what it is – but he must wait to use it.


You might also enjoy finding out what happens to a bad day when you sneak in a book, an easy, powerful way to boost life happiness, why hell is the fiction genre minefield or you can just discover new fiction right now.

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