A few years back, there was a massive forest fire near where I was living and working in the Pacific Northwest. Friends of mine had to evacuate their home for weeks while emergency responders fought the fire. The fire burned a major section of forest along a scenic riverway, closing down stretches of highway and rail lines for long periods. Even the river itself was closed to marine traffic for a time. Ash from the fire fell for days where I lived. It took three months to fully contain the fire. Nearly 50,000 acres burned.
The fire started because a teenager who was hiking with a group of friends lit fireworks off the side of a ridge during one of the driest summers on record for the area. Burning anything of any sort was legally banned at the time. The consequences of that single firework totaled more than $36 million.
“Every day I think about this terrible decision and its awful consequences,” said the Vancouver, Wash., boy. “I know I will have to live with my bad decision for the rest of my life.”
Living with our bad decisions is another way of talking about regret. Yet, regret is a rather unpopular topic. We tend to avoid it.
Andy Root works with young people and he trains others who do the same. In a recent book, he pointed out that more than previous generations, young people seem not to experience much regret. “#YOLO” (short for “you only live once”) is their way. #YOLO sounds like a combination of carpe diem (seize the day) and pop-psychology advice that tells us not to dwell on the past. After all, the past is the past. We can’t change it. So we might as well move on.
I’m all for seizing the day and living in the moment. Ancient wisdom offers the same advice, since we don’t know what tomorrow holds. For example, the Bible advises us to walk not as unwise, but as wise, for the days are evil (Ephesians 5.15–16). We’re warned to pay attention, be thoughtful, and watch out for danger. This requires a vigilance that’s attentive to the moment.
Still, I find it rather difficult to focus on the here and now. It’s as if there is a piece of me that is always waiting for some better time to arrive. Whether that’s unlocking the achievements and privileges that come with age or waiting for parenting to get easier.
When I was a teenager, I did something I regret. Due to the context in which I grew up, it took a few years for it to really hit me. I realized that I used a racial slur against a fellow musician in a high school class. To be honest, I was really impressed by her and we performed in all the same ensembles. My comment was senseless, meant to be a joke, and honestly, meant most of all to impress people around me.
Moments later a friend came to her defense, telling me I had made the other girl cry. Her rebuke quickly reminded me that my parents raised me to be better than this. As a result, I’ve always had a rather high guilt complex about such things. So I immediately pursued reconciliation. I apologized to her about my comment immediately. She accepted my apology (see more about apologies here), but the damage had already been done. I couldn’t take my comment back. The memory of it lingers. The senseless hurt I caused occasionally returns to hurt me back in the form of regret.
Because of experiences like this in which I experience real regret—whether about things serious or more trivial—I struggle to connect with the sentiment of #YOLO and the “no regrets” attitude that accompanies it. While I do not share the sentiment, sociologist Christian Smith argues that a “no regrets” attitude is nevertheless prominent among emerging young adults (perhaps I’m just a decade too old). He puts it this way:
Despite often smarting from hard lessons learned, most of the emerging adults who were interviewed explicitly denied feeling any regrets about any of their past decisions, behaviors, or problems. Reinforcing their widespread feeling of optimism about the future, most of the survey respondents—including many of those with miserably depressing histories and current problems, as well as those who seem to take full responsibility for their own mistakes and stupidities—insisted that the past was the past, that they learned their lessons well, that they would not change a thing even if they could, that what’s happened is part of who they have become, and that they have no regrets about anything at all.(Christian Smith, Souls in Transition)
In the next line, Smith transitions to an observation that suddenly seems to include me again, saying, “many emerging adults also appear, we think, to harbor regrets about the past even when they deny that they do. They clearly do not want to see themselves as having regrets, even though they also get angry with themselves about mistakes and continue sometimes to be haunted by problems from the past.”
Haunted. That’s me. And I suspect it’s also the teenager who accidentally started the forest fire.
I was teaching university students when the forest fire occurred. We were in the early weeks of the Fall semester taking up questions of the meaningfulness of life. It was hard to ignore the smoke that choked the valley where many of us lived. The ash gracefully falling from the sky gently rested upon windowsills and parked cars.
I remember one of our discussions coming to rest briefly on the subject of the forest fire and the young man who was responsible. “What was he thinking?” a student wondered. I answered by saying that he probably wasn’t thinking much at all, due the developmental stage of his teenage brain. While true, I added a bit more nuance. I told them that I could totally relate to what he probably did think: “how cool would it be to light fireworks off the side of the ridge?!?” Aside from perhaps trying to impress his friends, as someone who has always liked playing with fire, I could relate. But what he clearly wasn’t thinking about was the bigger picture: the consequences, the illegality of burning, the danger of throwing fireworks without knowing where they’ll land, the risk at which he was putting others (the fire trapped 153 other hikers for up to a day).
Yet the consequences that followed, both the visible ones like burnt trees along roadways and barren mountainsides, and others like a massive unpayable fine and nearly 2000 hours of community service, are hard to look back upon and not elicit feelings of regret, especially for a rather thoughtless choice. Similar for me are the memories of that young woman’s tears.
Perhaps one reason that people avoid regret is practical. What can you do about the past? Pretty much nothing. So let’s just move on already.
Another reason might be psychological. Dwelling on past failures can affect one’s mental health. Regret can sink us. We spin ourselves into a deep depressive slump whenever we’re caught up in the spiral of focusing on our past mistakes.
Still, it’s appropriate to recognize that those mistakes don’t define us, even if they’re part of our story. But they do contribute to our identity at least in terms of a memory from which we can learn and make different decisions in the future. (read more about making decisions based on memories here)
Jonathan Malesic writes powerfully about how we can lean back on our regrettable decisions and actions. He suggests that,
“No regrets” sounds great on TV and shares well on social media because we equate decisiveness with importance and control. But to live proudly without regret is to ratify your own idiocy, to take unjustified self-satisfaction in your existence. Your past actions made you who you are, sure, but maybe who you are isn’t so great. Without regret, you have no way to reckon with that.
Malesic goes on to suggest that mistakes might be the best sort of teacher. Here’s something I can resonate with. Most of the mistakes I’ve made, once I’ve realized they were mistakes—whether they were simple errors on an exam or damage done to personal relationships—I’ve usually not made them again. The lesson learned looms almost ever-present. As Malesic says, “Regret allows us to enter into an ethical relationship with who we have been in the past…Even the person you were a moment ago can seem alien to who you are now, given a sufficiently consequential decision separating the one from the other.”
Looking back on that young man who started the forest fire or my experience with the young woman, it’s easy to think, “who would do such a thing?” Well, clearly in the latter case, I did. But my own disgust with myself is powerful. It maintains a haunting control over who I want to be in the future precisely because I remember what I’ve done in the past.
Nevertheless, such memories do not dominate my life or overly color my self-perception. Rather, they play a role alongside the identity I’ve received from outside of myself, not the one I can create by looking in the mirror. My identity comes from my Creator, and he calls me his child. I’m his child because he has, despite all my feebleness and failing, redeemed my life. In his eyes, he sees not my past (nor my proneness at times to relive and repeat it). Rather, he sees me as one for whom it was worth sending his Son, Jesus Christ, to die so that I might not have to. My creator even promises to forget my past mistakes (Psalm 103.12). Forgiveness provides a freedom that allows me to keep going.
That gives me hope knowing that moving forward in life, I’ll likely still do and say things I wish I could take back. Having learned some lessons in the past however, I pray that I am the slightest bit wiser so that I might mitigate the damage. Malesic seems equally hopeful.
Paradoxically, the way to live confidently isn’t to banish regret and look only to the future. The challenge is to act, informed by reflection on past mistakes and ready to regret the decision later. It’s to realize that there are worse things than regret. Learning to regret well makes you humble in the face of the consequences your actions will have for a person—your future self—who remains something of a stranger. So act with circumspection and humility, and be ready to earn reproach.
What regrets are haunting you? How do you let them play their role of forming you for the future without dominating your sense of self, stimulating inappropriate guilt? How is the gift of God’s forgiveness effective for you in tempering feelings of regret in a culture that says, “no regrets?”