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?