herald

Monday 24 November 2014

Do you spend two hours a week regretting the past?

WE spend so much time looking back with sadness... but there is something positive we can take from all our deepest regrets.

Seven years ago I ate in a restaurant in Lviv in the Ukraine. I was travelling on a pittance -- though it was more than the average Ukrainian monthly wage. The food was good and the service impeccable, but the bill seemed high. I queried it and was shown that the mistake was mine. The waiter, young, austere and dignified, gave me a look of unforgettable reproach. As I left, I tried to say goodbye but he wouldn't look up. I will never forget the set of his shoulders. My insinuation of dishonesty had stung him to the quick. I felt entitled, crude and crass.

This regret is quite hard to convey. People might think it's fine to query a bill, but in this situation -- in a desperately poor city which gets few visitors and fewer foreigners, where the restaurant was on its mettle to perform, I was, in a sense, a guest. And I insulted them. It was bad manners.

Bad manners doesn't seem to feature too highly on surveys about regrets, of which there are now no shortage. In March 2011, Northwestern University in Illinois published its survey of the top 10 American regrets; in January this year a former Australian palliative care nurse's blog about the Top Five Regrets of the Dying went viral, and just this month the British Heart Foundation published its findings on major regrets in the UK.

No one has commissioned an Irish survey yet, which is a pity because regional variations in regret are fascinating. The biggest British regret -- 'Not travelling and seeing more of the world' -- doesn't even feature on the American survey. Americans regret "family arguments", "bad parenting" and "being mean to siblings in childhood", none of which bother the British, who don't mention family except for the weirdly specific "not asking grandparents more about their lives".

Both Americans and Brits have regrets around education and not studying harder, but this doesn't feature at all on the more profound regrets of the dying who, conversely, regret "working too hard" and not spending more time with partners, children, and friends.

PROFOUND

I'm bemused by half of the regrets on the British list -- not travelling more, taking too little exercise, eating unhealthily, taking up smoking, not keeping in touch with friends -- because surely these are things you can do something about. Okay, it requires will power but you could conceivably start jogging, eating lentils and travelling to Japan. You could put out that cigarette and phone a friend.

How do we define 'lifetime' or 'major' regrets (as opposed to mundane regrets such as my failure to record Homeland last week)? The New York writer, Kathryn Schultz -- whose TED talk last December 'Don't regret regret' is part of the recent regret industry -- defines a regret as "the emotion we experience when we think our present situation could be better if we'd done something different in the past".

To this I'd add that a major regret is also irredeemable, something you may be able to apologise for, but which you can't undo. Both my mother and I regret not being able to drive, but it's too late for her to learn so that's a lifetime regret, whereas I could still do something about it (though I'd want to get a move on). In the absence of any Irish survey, I conducted my own mini poll among family and friends. It isn't nationally representative but I did ensure a spread of ages -- from 26 to 70 -- and of gender because according to the American survey there are differences between the sexes, with women more likely to regret relationships and men having more career regrets.

I got back a few inevitable riffs on Edith Piaf -- Je Ne Regrette Rien -- but everyone then got down to the serious business of regretting.

FAVOURITE

In fact, while crippling regret can be debilitating and prevent us moving on with our lives, having no regrets or remorse is one of the signs of a psychopath. Acknowledging regret is a path to self-knowledge.

Everyone's favourite novel, The Great Gatsby, is premised on Gatsby's regret at losing Daisy and indeed his failure to realise that his regret is irredeemable.

Some of the regrets from my survey are highly specific and intriguing -- "Stealing 10 pool balls from a bar in China, an act which served as catalyst for a triad feud which culminated in a sword fight" (woman, 20s)! That one needs a whole article to itself ...

But patterns did emerge, and some of them familiar: "Being so lazy at college" (my younger sister) -- "Not going to chef school and thinking that Sociology and French was going to get me anywhere" (woman, 30s) are education regrets that recur in the British and American surveys. Similarly with romance regrets. "lost love" or "failed relationships" was the biggest regret in the American survey and it also featured among the Brits, except that, fascinatingly, they don't regret the one that got away but the more bitter and less poignant "wasting years with the wrong partner".

My Irish participants were more like the Americans. "Breaking a girl's (who really loved me) heart, so I could go sowing wild oats" (man, 30s), "Not making a move in my early 20s on a man, when there was something very strong between us" (woman, 40s); "Meeting the right person but at the wrong time" (woman, 30s). Also, less heart-rendingly: "Getting my nose broken in a fight over a girl who wasn't worth it" (man, 30s), "Nearly daily drunken dialling to a particular girl" (woman, 30s).

I also got some fabulous carpe diem romance regrets: "Not sleeping around more when I was single" (woman, 40s), "Not enjoying the favours of girls who populated my youth" (man, 40s), "I should have had more adventures in my 50s, it's a racy decade" (woman, 70s).

These regrets for sins not committed don't feature on the other surveys, although among the regrets of the dying are "I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings" which seems a less gutsy way of saying seize the day. I was very pleased by another pattern which emerged quite strongly in my poll: regret over unkindness.

"I regret not being kinder to people, and not being more supportive to people when they needed it" (man, 40s), "Not standing up for a friend who was being bullied in secondary school" (woman, 20s); "Not being kinder to my mother-in-law" (woman, 70s).

Unkindness did feature in the American survey but it was about unkindness to family, whereas I think my correspondents went deeper. The only advice I ever give my nephews is: be kind to people in your class, for your sake, if not for theirs.

Some people have highly specific regrets which can't be computed into a Top 10 but can say a huge amount. "If I could go back, I would say 'yes' to my grandmother's offer to teach me how to knit. She could knit anything without the help of patterns. My foolish answer was 'I don't want to be a housewife'." (Woman, 60s). This woman is a feminist icon to all who know her and she's saying something quite profound about the woman's movement -- as a teenager in the 1960s, she wanted to get away from woman's work in the home; now she sees its value.

As a final twist, and to turn the question on its head, I asked people to nominate something they don't regret though other people might think they should. Some of the answers were so brilliantly defiant that Gloria Gaynor should start singing about them:

"I don't regret getting my heart broken" (woman, 30s); "I don't regret the times I've been unfaithful in previous relationships" (woman, 40s). Wow! I realised that asking people what they don't regret can really get to the heart of what makes them tick.

If you want to try some home therapy, make a list of your regrets, divide them into ones you can do something about and ones you can't. Resolve not to be caught in a cycle of repeating the same regrets. Then think about what you don't regret, when the world might say you should. This will remind you of what makes you you.

I would close with my own non-regrets but, thinking about them, I know why my correspondents demanded anonymity: most of the controversial things I don't regret are illegal, hurtful, indiscreet, and, worst of all, may even look like boasts. It's probably the same for you. Oh, I do not regret not being on Facebook, whatever Mark Zuckerberg says. But that is hardly controversial ...

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