In the pantheon of negative emotions, regret is the most revered of all by mere mortals. Anger, fear and even grief are flashier and more noticeable because of their intensity. We give them their due when our lives demand it, but regret is a stone that is never set down. It is a slow burn that binds us to our past with chains that only get thicker with age.
Regret should never be confused with its cousin, remorse. Remorse is similar in its power over us but it can prompt one to apologize (and a real man or woman apologizes), especially to oneself. It is not easy to shed, but unlike regret, it is possible to do so. Regret is for those things left unsaid and undone.
I recently had dinner with a friend and we gave our usual homage to regret. We did so over beers but that was foolish because bourbon is the right drink for regret. Beer is a fine drink, of course, but beer is for being in the moment. It is best paired with barbecues and sporting events, just as a champagne bottle popping triggers celebrating. Tequila and Vodka are for just plain getting drunk but bourbon? Bourbon is for musing. Brooding. And it is a brooding mood that one seeks when aiming to get your regret on.
We did not speak of remorse for the things we did. Nor are we the kind of guys to bemoan the loss of our glory days. Instead, we lay all the problems of our current lives at the doorstep of regret, like offerings in the donation box. We should have spent more time in our 20s – back when we had no real responsibility – doing things like traveling, writing, starting businesses, whatever. All the things we can’t do now are the fault of our mindset post college when we just wanted to cast off into our lives but should have spent more time wandering to determine our course.
Regret is a bully that comes upon you in your darkest moments. When you’re already down, it comes running in to to kick you, reminding you that if only you had made different choices, you wouldn’t be in this mess. It runs away before you can fight back because you cannot change the past. Brooding over choices not made is just shouting at the void.
Therein lies regret’s superpower.
With remorse, anger, shame, sadness, and so on, we sometimes have an option of making things better. We don’t want to focus on them too long because eventually any rational person is forced to take corrective action. Regret for choices not made has no action. There is nothing to apologize for. No one to make amends to. The past is gone and cannot be un-gone. So, we tip our bourbons to the path not taken and move on with our lives. No emotion weighs heavier on a person’s future. It is impossible to freely move forward without freeing yourself of the bonds of your past.
I have much to be thankful for in my life but for some reason that is not an antidote for regret because I then regret… regretting! The “if only” thoughts always have room no matter how sunny the outlook is. I’m blessed to be a father but if only I had done things differently I could be a better father. I’m finally taking writing more seriously but I should have started sooner. Like that. Then, you’ve got a bloody nose and regret is running back into your subconscious, cackling like a gremlin.
Regret only strengthens with time because of the perception that course correction becomes too difficult. Regretting what degree you’ve chosen is a lot easier to change when you’re still in the early days of your formal education. Regretting where you’ve chosen to live is easier before you’ve purchased a home or expanded your clan. Chasing down a risky business idea is more fathomable when you have no real financial responsibility.
So how does one use regret for good?
Brooding on it, I realized that these days, I regret the choices I didn’t make in my early 30s. In my early 30s, I regretted the choices I didn’t make in my 20s. In my later 20s, I regretted not chasing down my passions in school. I school, I regretted…
Sometimes life can shout its lessons at you, but I’ve always been a slow student with such things. Regret changes with a simple question:
When I look back at where I am now, what will I regret?
Will I wish I spent more time enjoying my children’s childhood? Most definitely. Will I wish I spent less time stressed and focused on the things that don’t matter? I can almost taste the bourbon I’ll have while brooding over that gem in 20 years.
In the lens of adulthood, we are baffled by the crimes of not having more exciting lives back when. In the weighty lens of the now, all the excuses of the past are inadequate. Back when I had time, I felt the sands always pouring down. Back when I could take risks, I felt that I had too much too lose. Now, I see that all I had was time. Now, I see that life is about risk and the best men and women of our time are the ones who moved boldly forward while everyone else lingered back.
True, with family and career and all the rest, responsibility lies heavy, but don’t let regret whisper in your ear that it is ever too late. If you’re reading this, you’re breathing (probably), so there is time. You can’t re-live yesterday but you can live today. Ask yourself what you will regret about where you are right now, today. Then, go forth and give your future self less to brood over.
Don’t worry, bourbon pairs even better with satisfaction.