Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.
–Arthur Miller, The Ride Down Mount Morgan
At work today, I overheard one co-worker telling another about her son’s girlfriend, who recently moved to Duluth after living elsewhere her entire life. My co-worker asked the girlfriend what she thought about her move to Duluth.
“I don’t look back,” the girlfriend answered immediately. Both of my co-workers were impressed: that is quite the sign of commitment, especially out of a 25-year-old.
I quietly had a very different reaction.
I don’t mean to rain on this girl’s parade: if she really can cut herself off like that, and this isn’t some way of suppressing deeper issues, good for her. There do seem to be some people out there who can go forever without second-guessing themselves. Some jobs require short memories, and sometimes erasing the past is important, lest one lapse into endless second-guessing and dwelling and even depression. These sorts of people, driven by such clear-eyed resolve, can achieve great things.
I am not one of those people. Moreover, I find that forcing myself to be one of those people is far more damaging than making peace with the past: I have to recognize it, learn from it, and aim for something better in the future. Once you’ve caught the disease of introspection, it’s only something that can be managed, never cured. And, when managed properly, it can bring about any number of new insights. I can’t run away from the dumb things I’ve done, or the mistakes I’ve made: they are a part of me, just as much as my triumphs are, and my response to them is a huge part in shaping who I am. If I move to a new city, I am most certainly going to examine whether or not my life has improved, and take immediate corrective action if it hasn’t been a healthy one. I am also going to hold on to my roots back where I came from, both as a reminder of what formed me while I was there, and perhaps as a safety net that I might need to fall back on. Yes, there is some danger of falling into a nostalgia trap, but so long as one is aware of the danger, one can manage it in a fairly healthy way.
This brings me to the Arthur Miller line at the start of the piece, which I simply adore. When I was in high school, the school would always had out these assignment notebooks at the start of each year, and they always included some sort of inspirational quote on each page. For the most part, I found them sappy and/or cliché. But then, one week, I stumbled across this one, and had my own little moment of dawning realization, right there in Mr. Jones’s English class. For a kid who wasn’t quite sure what to believe, it seemed like such a simple summation of what I was looking for. Instead of immediately saying “no regrets” (or, in contemporary parlance, “YOLO!”), it admits that, at least on some level, we’re going to regret many of the things we do. We all make mistakes, large and small, and we often sit and wonder what could have been had we only found the guts to seize some opportunity that passed us by. It isn’t hard to drown in them.
The question, then, becomes a matter of what a “right” regret is. A right regret might be one that we recognize, upon reflection, was not so serious an error after all: so what if I never did ask that girl out; I found another one who completes me, and I can look back at that and laugh now. Perhaps even more importantly, they can offer life lessons: well, it was dumb of me to take that job, but now I know that I never would’ve been happy there, and I can safely eliminate that career path now. Weighing one’s regrets and deciding how serious they are grants a healthy dose of perspective, allowing one to forget the trivial concerns and hone in on the wrongness of certain regrets one still has to atone for.
There is some danger here in using the right regrets as a way to retroactively justify anything. (Indeed, the line in Miller’s play is an attempt by one character to console another who has just revealed he is secretly married two different women in two different cities. Even if you support polygamy or the blind pursuit of one’s own passions above all else, it’s hard to ignore the rampant relativism here.) It’s a helpful quote, not a creed to live by. But for those of us who cannot forget the past, it can be a tool for sorting through that jumble of memories and deciding what is worth carrying forward. Then, maybe, we can go to bed at night fully aware of where we’ve come from, yet unburdened by that past, satisfied with who we’ve become.