The other day an old friend told me of her regret about the decision she had made in her early life to go to graduate school A rather than graduate school B, because it may have shut off some career opportunities. Philosopher that I am, I immediately dismissed her concern by pointing out that her beloved daughter would not even exist had my friend made a different decision. My friend did not at first see the connection, so I explained that I was referring to the utter contingency of which sperm meets which egg; so the slightest alteration of prior conditions would mean a different person, or no person, would have been born.
Although she then saw what I was getting at, this did not lift her regret. I chalked it up to the usual irrationality of nonphilosophers (which also includes all philosophers when they revert to being just plain people, which is really just about all of the time, even in their professional role).
But some musing on another subject has now given me a different understanding of what may be going on with my friend. I was listening to some gorgeous music on the car radio but noticed that my hearing was diminished by the congestion I’ve been having during this allergy season. This led to a reverie about going deaf. It then occurred to me that I am remarkably immune to regret about the loss of some things, which loss, when I am in their grip, would be almost unthinkable. Music is certainly a prime example. I am transported by countless different forms of music and individual compositions to a thousand different forms of ecstasy. And yet … although from time to time I feel a thirst to hear music … on the whole its general absence would not, I think, leave any big hole in my felt existence.
Then I thought about other kinds of pleasures. When I became a vegan I instantly gave up many foods I enjoy (and would still). I remember thinking on the very day I made the resolution: Why not at least finish off the final can of tuna fish in the cupboard? But I didn’t. (I gave it away so the tuna would not have died in vain.) And despite my love of tuna (the food), it was not at all difficult for me to go cold turkey (so to speak). After these many years I do find my diet boring (albeit only because I’m too lazy to cook); but I definitely do not go around pining for tuna fish etc. etc.
I also recall a particular episode of getting high (during my brief career as a young pot smoker), which filled me with sublime pleasure (music!) and also made me want to spread love (i.e., smoking pot) to the whole world. But as much as I wish I could recapture that experience, I have no yearning to reintroduce it into my life.
Similarly for meditating three times a day. I was able to drift through life in the most carefree way … so unlike my anxious existence ever since. But I gave it up when I saw the regime interfering too much with the spontaneity and responsibilities of daily life. (Now I mediate just once a day when I get up in the morning.) Wistful feelings when I happen to think of those days – but, again, no real regret.
The ultimate test could be sex. But I am now old enough to realize that this too is likely dispensable from the (or a) good life.
What, then, of my friend’s regret? It suddenly occurred to me that regret could serve some useful function after all: It may be a signal that one is unhappy and (therefore) may want to try to change one’s circumstances. For any or all of the losses I have mentioned in my own life that do not or would not (necessarily) bum me out, might very well do so if I were not otherwise content with my life. Thus, I surmise, my friend, although surely happy about her daughter (and other aspects of her life), must still experience some fundamental dissatisfaction with the way things are going for herself (or the world?).
This points up a subtle distinction. On its face, regret represents a dissatisfaction with the ways things have gone in one’s life. But what I am suggesting is that it’s deeper meaning is that one is dissatisfied with how things are now going in one’s life. For – judging by my own case – I could care less about the past decades of pain if right now (and for the foreseeable future) I feel OK. No regrets!
My formula for happiness (i.e., no regrets) is, of course, not quite so simple. For one thing there may not be any solution to one’s dissatisfaction, even if the real meaning of one’s regret has now been revealed to oneself. Thus, for example, there may be no way ever to be content or happy with life if one has lost a child (say, due to some otherwise seemingly innocent decision one had made).
I don’t know if regret links up with what might be considered a pure moral concern. Thus, suppose one’s compassion for the bottomless suffering in the world made one immune to happiness. Would this make one perpetually liable to regret? My hunch is that the answer is No. For in addition to indicating that one is unhappy, regret seems also to signal that one is somehow responsible for whatever it is that is causing the unhappiness. But if you are, say, an earnest vegan and animal rights advocate who can never be truly happy because of your acute awareness of the unending holocaust of the animals, I’m not sure that, on that account, you would be feeling any regret if you knew you had been doing your best. (You would of course wish the world were different.)
But note also that I do not mean to suggest that the elimination of regret has to be linked to some action directed at the source of the regret. For instance, my friend’s regretted choice of grad school is based on her felt-hampered career prospects. However, it could be that something besides a better career could fill her life with sufficient joy to make her no longer care about her career that much. I would have thought the daughter could do the trick; but it could be that the career simply looms too large in my friend’s life aspirations to enable her to lose regret if her career never improves.
I would hope for one of two (logically) possible happy endings for her. (1) She discovers some change she can make in her life, whether or not having to do with her career, that makes her happy or (2) She recognizes that, whatever the function of regret properly understood, or however elusive happiness may be for oneself, regret remains something fundamentally irrational in that whatever has been, or is, could not have been otherwise – so why add to your sorrows pointlessly by dwelling on how things might have been?
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