Sunday, November 23, 2014

Regrets, I’ve Had a Few

Don’t look back
Auguste Rodin, Orpheus and Eurydice, 1893
Martin Blank: “I’m sorry if I fucked up your life.”
Debi Newberry: “It’s not over yet.”

— Grosse Pointe Blank

Why do we regret life choices? In retrospect, some are decisions with serious and long lasting consequences we make carelessly, hastily, or without due consideration to relevant factors clearly available to our decision making process at the time. They are important choices poorly made. These are good candidates for regret, because we think to ourselves, “If only I had thought more clearly, or taken more time, or investigated my options more carefully, I could have accomplished something important I would have wanted at the time and perhaps still do.” These are the kind where our overwhelming impulse is to kick ourselves for being so stupid, blind, or rash. And we are right to do so. If you are like me, Dear Readers, these are the decisions I cringe to remember, and for which my ears burn with embarrassment.

Others are choices we make deliberately, carefully, with all due attention to the facts as we know them, but that turn out to be wrong, or have unanticipated negative consequences which would have made us choose differently had we foreseen them. These regrets take the form, “If only I had known…” But these are properly weaker regrets, because they hinge on counterfactuals which we instinctively if not explicitly realize were not in our control: information which would have made us change our minds was hidden or unavailable to us, or—a special case of the foregoing—future conditions which we relied upon in making our decision changed after we decided, thereby undermining our intent. Human beings operate with bounded rationality, and even the best and most conscientious decision maker can be foiled by unknown (and perhaps unknowable) data and the vicissitudes of an uncertain future. The consequences may be just as bad, in retrospect, as those arising from a bad decision poorly made—or even worse—but it is pointless to beat yourself up too much for choices you made without considering information completely unavailable to you. Someone who gives more than a passing shrug of regret for the abandoned winning lottery ticket they failed to pick up off the street has their priorities and sense of the possible all messed up.

Still others are good decisions, carefully made, incorporating a complete set of relevant data and good anticipation of future developments, that we later come to regret because we discover we no longer want what we thought we did at the time. Perhaps these are just another subset of the second kind, where the unknown facts we did not incorporate into our decision process are future changes to our values or priorities. But these regrets are often the most troubling, because we are stuck with bad consequences we did not anticipate for which we can blame no-one but ourselves. Nobody hid any data from us, we weighed the pros and cons carefully, and the future played out just as we expected, but now the successful results of our decisions prevent us from realizing other desires or values that are just as or more important to us. This kind of regret often is a natural consequence of the normal process of aging, as young people make important and often irreversible life decisions they later come to regret as older individuals.

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And so we get examples like this, where a 46-year-old banker complains on Reddit that his choices as a young man—for security, wealth, and a successful career—have resulted in a broken marriage, estrangement from his son, and the abandonment of cherished dreams of writing, travel, and adventure he had when he was young. According to his story, he did not make choices rashly or irresponsibly; if anything, his complaint seems to be based in part on his opinion that he chose too cautiously. I will not judge this man’s life choices or his current situation, other than to observe that perhaps his real faults are blindness and inattention.

Why should anyone expect that decisions once made should never be revisited or reexamined in light of changing circumstances or changed desires? Even in our blessed state of deferred decision making in the developed world, many of us begin to pick mates, careers, and life paths while we are still in our twenties, when maturity-wise we are little more than children. Not only should we expect our values and priorities to change with age and circumstance, we should be alert to the fact that many of the decisions we make will be impossible or very difficult to undo. This is naturally hard for young people—I speak from experience, having been one—since the general existential assumption of youth is that time is unlimited and life is one endless series of sequential possibilities. The notion that, for example, having and raising children will impose dramatic limitations on one’s freedom and possibilities for personal fulfillment for decades in one’s young and middle adulthood doesn’t even occur to most twenty-somethings, except in some sort of intellectual sense, which is to say: not at all.

Of course this lesson—and many others which cranky oldsters like me try to impart on a regular basis to succeeding generations—is almost always only learned by personal experience. I remember having gauzy, exciting dreams of adventure and possibility as a twenty-something myself. Most of them, in retrospect, were pretty unrealistic, naive, or just silly. I don’t regret not trying to pursue them now because I realize they likely would have been a disappointing waste of time. In contrast, the adventure and excitement in my actual life have come from the commitments I have made, like marriage, children, and a career, because almost all of them required, in some form or another, a blind leap of faith into the unknown. Has it all been peaches and cream? Absolutely not, but it has been an adventure.

And, lest you sink into a youthful funk contemplating an endless vista of diaper changing, weekend soccer games, and college application trials as the entirety of your ineluctable fate, take heart. The good news about adulthood is that is doesn’t necessarily crush your dreams. It just gives you new ones. You just need to be alert to discovering them.

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Of course, a looming sense of mortality can be salutary, too. There’s nothing like lagging energy, mysterious aches and pains, and strange growths discovered in the mirror to drum into your consciousness that your time here is limited and precious. Adventure and excitement can often be found right in your own backyard, if you know where to look:

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

— John Lennon

Hey, I warned you it all isn’t peaches and cream.

Related reading:
Turn the Page (December 31, 2011)
Walking Song (December 18, 2011)
Can’t Buy Me Love (April 29, 2012)

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