I often ask my high school students, that if they could give words of wisdom to younger people, what would they tell them? Most have the same sentiment behind them, with messages of “be true to yourself” and “try your hardest,” but one that more frequently comes up, one that they seem to fundamentally misunderstand the concept behind, is the idea to “live with no regrets.”
Our youth culture seems to have adopted the idea that you should never regret anything you do, which is how my students misinterpret this statement. The idea that this concept is truly ushering in is that instead, we should make the correct decisions in life, not ones that we will be sorry for in the future. Regret can be the most horrible of feelings to live with, as it is connected to actions of the past, which are of course, unchangeable. Thus, regret means we live the rest of our life wishing we had approached a situation differently, unable to change the outcome of something that happened so long ago.
In my own life, I have two or three major regrets when I was in college. Of them, the biggest, the one worth mentioning, is that I wish I had spent a semester abroad in another country. I know many people who did, and they all had an amazingly memorable time. My wife went to Mexico and lived with a host family, immersing herself in the Spanish-language culture. My brother went to Belgium and worked with the world’s greatest cooks and chefs. With great jealousy, I’ve listened to my former students discuss their experiences in France, Spain, and Germany, and about how they soaked up every bit of art, music, theater and literature of the place, while I can only reminisce about my days in my dormitory.
It is said that we more often regret the things that we don’t do rather than the things that we ultimately do. To look back at lost opportunities is to live in a cycle of hellish present-day torture, one with seemingly no end to it. To repeatedly hear the words in our mind, that we should have done x, y, and z when we had the chance, is to be filled with despair and helplessness at the missed situation that presented itself, the one we never took the chance to experience.
Regret is also not regulated to any group or individual; all are susceptible. Even the apostle Peter experienced it while Christ was being arrested, tortured, and headed for crucifixion on the cross. Jesus had previously mentioned to him that he would deny Christ three times, a suggestion at which Peter balked. Yet, when the time came to admit knowing Him, Peter denied Christ on all three occasions: “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Luke 22.61-2). This failure would haunt him for the remainder of his life, that he had the chance to publicly acknowledge Christ to a group of people who were rejecting Him, and he blew it.
But how do we know for sure that it haunted him? The answer lies in the actions that Peter put on display for the remainder of his life.
Although regret is a tremendously devastating feeling, it can also be one of the greatest motivators, pushing us to live differently. It can fundamentally change our course of action for the rest of our life, as we know that we missed out on something and never want that feeling to come ever again. For myself, I missed out on the chance to travel abroad and experience a different culture when I was in college. However, even though I still feel that regret, I have learned to transform my feeling of regret into a motivator for my future actions. As such, I now travel as much as I possibly can whenever I get the chance to. Each summer is spent in a different country, and I’ve had the opportunity to be immersed in a number of different cultures, more than I would have had I never regretted that initial decision in college. Similarly, Peter went from regretfully denying Christ three times to being one of the most outspoken apostles for Christ, the one on whom the church was built, the one who preached to enormous amounts of people following Christ’s death, regardless of the consequences. Because Peter had denied knowing Him and felt that regret, he decided to transform that regret into action and never deny Him again, preaching His name whenever and wherever who could.
The philosopher and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau was quoted as saying, “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.” The issue is not having regrets; it’s what we do with those regrets that matter most. The deeper the regret, the deeper the change in our lives there can be. If we learn to dismiss our regrets or try to live without any regrets, we are not really living but are just learning to be numb to life, accepting an existence with no impact on others or ourselves.
So, don’t dismiss your regrets or try to fix them: embrace them. Like pain, regret is a sign that something is wrong and in need of attention. Addressing your regrets doesn’t mean they will go away. In fact, it’s better if they don’t, because they will now be a daily reminder to live stronger and bolder as a result of them. Then, learn to transform them into actions that steer your life on a different course, one that doesn’t get rid of your regrets but instead course corrects your life into amazing opportunities, thus being motivated to truly live. Amen.