in Thoughts

The Fantasy of Living Without Regrets

“Live life without any regrets!”

We have probably all heard this admonition, and perhaps even thought it sounded like a good idea. I have even on occasion heard people boast that they do in fact live this way.

Sooner or later, we will all come to the end of our time here on earth. When our time comes, none of us want to look back over our life, whether it spans 20 years, 40 years, or 80 years, and realize that our life story is marked with regret. Unfortunately, we don’t get “do overs” in life, nor do we have the luxury of an “undo” button like those found in many computer applications; either we get it right the first time or we live to regret our failures and poor decisions. Thus is born the idea of living life with no regrets.

The problem is that living without regrets is an impossible ideal.

First of all, we are human and we all have out own issues with which we struggle. Hopefully we are given a good start in life and thus have fewer issues than our neighbor (but we still have issues), and hopefully we deal with our issues early in life before we inflict additional and unnecessary damage on ourselves, our spouse and children, and on others who we encounter in life. Regardless, even in the best of cases and with the best of intentions, our own human failings and baggage will interfere with our performance of a perfect life.

Second, not only are we imperfect humans, we are not blessed (or perhaps cursed) with perfect foreknowledge. In other words, we make decisions with the best information we have available at any given time (hopefully), but we can be certain of failing to make the best decision in every circumstance – even with the purest of intentions.

As an aside, we have all also heard that hindsight is 20/20. Alas, this is yet another fantasy. Hindsight can bring the benefit of increased clarity, but there are still too many variables to ever be certain what would have been the outcome of a different course of action. Hopefully hindsight provides enough clarity to help us learn from some mistakes, but it is far from a perfect teacher.

I have been thinking about the frustration of regrets lately. As a young (-ish) widower I am acutely aware of the impossibility of living without regrets. I invested four years as a full-time caregiver, during which time I had praise heaped on me so often as to be embarrassing, but I do not believe what I did was any great thing or worthy of mention. I only did what I promised Terri I would do when we married – I stood by her in sickness and in health. Nonetheless, I did everything I could humanly do for my wife, yet still I regret so many things. I do not regret the investment I made in my wife, but I regret so many other things that could possibly have been better or, at the very least, different.

Does the futility of the ideal mean there is no value in trying to live without regrets? I don’t think so. I think there can be tremendous value in considering the likelihood of regret while debating a decision or action. Questioning whether we are likely to regret something afterward can be healthy. There are many things that look like fun today that will bring rather unpleasant consequences tomorrow. There is pleasure in sin for a season, as the Scripture says.

Chip and Dan Heath actually touch on this topic in their book Decisive. The Heath brothers refer to this as the 10/10/10 framework to overcome short-term emotion while trying to attain some distance before making a decision. The 10/10/10 framework asks three simple questions: How will you feel about the decision in 10 minutes? How will you feel about the decision in 10 months? How will you feel about the decision in 10 years? Many times just thinking about a decision this way puts things into remarkably clear perspective. This might work more easily for big decisions, but it doesn’t really take long to apply it to lesser decisions as well. Are you likely to regret this decision or action in 10 minutes, or in 10 months, or in 10 years? If the answer is yes then it might be worth reconsidering lest you add one more regret to your life.

Ultimately, we can minimize our regrets by trying to make the best decisions possible and by disciplining ourselves to do the right thing (even if nobody seems to be looking).

“We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline of the pain of regret and disappointment.”
Jim Rohn

We cannot live without regrets no matter how diligently we may try. We can, however, live with fewer regrets by learning to make better decisions and by disciplining ourselves to live with integrity.

The only way to live with no regrets is to have no care for past failures. To own up to our failures, to admit our mistakes and errors, to accept and learn from our bad decisions is necessarily to live with regrets.

To be human is to live with regrets.