Thursday, May 16, 2013

Regret

A few weeks ago I accidentally offended someone by challenging their viewpoint; my argument might have been valid, but the timing was bad, the setting was wrong. I got yelled at, and I felt pretty terrible. It was the most recent of a series of small incidents that were, and still are, teaching me a lesson: Agree Or Shut Up. Not always, of course, but as a rule of thumb. You won't go wrong with this as your default. (It is proving rather difficult for me, so if you know me and you see me breaking this rule: I am trying. Honestly, I am.)

I could not have come to this conclusion without the emotion of regret: I say something without really thinking, people let me know they're offended, and I feel a sting of regret-guilt-shame. This most recent incident left me feeling bad enough that I've been very, very mindful of what I say, and how/when/where I say it. In psychological terms, I am being molded by negative reinforcement. Regret is pain, and animals generally avoid pain.

So then I see this quote memeing around the social-media world:


And I felt immediately better! I don't regret having hurt someone's feelings; after all, I was just doing exactly what I wanted! So I'm off to offend the crap out of everyone now! YAY ME!

But really. Someone actually thinks this quote makes sense? A lot of someones? Enough someones that it's become a meme?

Not only do all of us feel regret over things done and chances missed, but I'm pretty sure we should. We need that feeling. That feeling tells us "don't do that again." If we never felt regret, or its sisters "shame" and "guilt," we'd blithely keep doing the same stupid things over and over.

The quote goes beyond the usual "no regrets," though; it has another message. It's saying that whatever you want is automatically good because you want it. It's saying that "right now" is the only important moment. It's saying that how your actions affect other people is completely irrelevant. Me. Me. Me. My wants. Now. Now. Now.

"Never regret anything because at one time it was exactly what you wanted." Imagine saying that to a criminal: oh, you stole millions of dollars from your company? Never regret that—it's exactly what you wanted! Even more to the point, imagine reading that quote to violent criminals. When people are hurt, the perpetrator should feel regret. If he doesn't, we have a psychopath on our hands.

It's just a quote, I know. And there's a good intention behind it; I know that too. It's saying "don't beat yourself up too badly. Don't dwell." But the way it's written, I feel like it symbolizes a sort of permanent toddler-ness I see around me: we are all two-year-olds, snatching toys from each other because we can only see our desire. I'm reminded of an interview I heard with a Wall Street exec, in which he reveled at gaming the system for his own financial gain, because he wanted other people's money and therefore he should have it. This is someone who believes that quote.

Have we gotten here—to this point where lots of people think that quote is actually wisdom—because we've been taught that shame, guilt, and regret are not only bummer feelings, but evil ones? That these are emotions to be avoided at all costs? That these are mind-states we cannot handle and must excise from our human experience?

 “I have many regrets, and I'm sure everyone does. The stupid things you do, you regret if you have any sense. And if you don't regret them, maybe you're stupid.” - Katharine Hepburn



To be healthy, productive, socially-connected human beings, we don't need to learn to live without regret: we need to learn to live with it. It's called "having a conscience."

What has regret taught you?



14 comments:

  1. I don't know if this sort of meme reflects current society or if it's helping to shape it. Probably it's cyclical. What I do know is that it shows how individualism has permeated and broken our society. Because as you say, of COURSE we should feel shitty when we behave shittily. There's something to be said for forgiving ourselves for past mistakes, but that forgiveness shouldn't entirely cancel out the regret.

    Lastly, I dislike this quote for the same reason I dislike so many other memes; It lacks complexity. If you read the original quote and it makes you feel better, then you need to up your analysis game.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "If you read the original quote and it makes you feel better, then you need to up your analysis game." HA! Too true.

      Delete
  2. I read the quote above and thought it was about not beating up your younger self for her stupid decisions without considering that you only KNOW they were stupid because you've had the benefit of seeing the awful consequences. That would be okay but the internets invest a passing comment with WISDOM, all of which seems designed to keep you from having to make any effort. Exculpatory rather than explanatory. Nearly all these memes are starting to hack me off. I hope they go the same way as the sheep people used to chuck at each other in PaleoFacebook. Thanks for laying out so clearly what I dimly felt.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Are those the sheeple people? Who wanted everyone to wake up? :D (And don't forget the Kool-Aid!)

      "Exculpatory rather than explanatory." Ooh, I like that.

      Delete
  3. Makes as much sense as "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

    ReplyDelete
  4. For you, babe.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHGYkYBD0h4

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am paralyzed with happiness right now. One of my favorites of theirs.

      Delete
  5. Suspicious of the regret-guilt-shame connection. I have long since effectively separated regret from guilt and decided there are situations that require me to choose one or the other. I always choose regret. No shame in that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "I have long since effectively separated regret from guilt ..." I am very intrigued by this. I can't imagine separating the two.

      Delete
  6. Regret teaches me that there are often no "do overs" in life, so it's best to try to get it right... and do it kindly... the first time.

    I was about to get all high and mighty here and say, "Oh no, you mustn't go with that 'agree or shut up' kinda philosophy." Then I realized, in some instances, that is exactly what I do. Georgia is predominantly republican, and I learned a long time ago that it's a waste of breath to try to discuss anything political with most people here. It is assumed that everyone either believes the same thing... or is mentally and morally deficient. Best to just keep my mouth shut.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My poor mom is having the same problem in Arizona, Susan. It's really hard to be in a political minority. Especially when the majority is really loud about their opinions! Our neighborhood is politically very mixed, which is nice. You don't find that much anymore.

      Delete
  7. I think it is often a balancing issue. Sometimes you see people doing things that are so corrosive or awful that you just have to say something, regardless of the consequences, but as I have gotten older I now try not to engage about things that do not matter.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, it is important to stand up to really problematic people, else they tend to gain momentum. I hardly ever feel regret when I do that. :) But the old adage of "pick your battles" is becoming clearer to me as I get older, too.

      Delete