Getting Real About Regret

Carina Chocano finds that those who insist we “just look on the bright side” are “not just as inhumanly opposed to emotion, but also as anti-intellectual”:

In starting to lay out the possible uses of regret, [Janet Landman, author of Regret: The Persistence of the Possible,] quotes William Faulkner. ‘The past,’ he wrote in 1950, ‘is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Great novels, Landman points out, are often about regret: about the life-changing consequences of a single bad decision (say, marrying the wrong person, not marrying the right one, or having let love pass you by altogether) over a long period of time. Sigmund Freud believed that thoughts, feelings, wishes, etc, are never entirely eradicated, but if repressed ‘[ramify] like a fungus in the dark and [take] on extreme forms of expression’. The denial of regret, in other words, will not block the fall of the dominoes. It will just allow you to close your eyes and clap your hands over your ears as they fall, down to the very last one.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that people’s greatest regrets revolve around education, work, and marriage, because the decisions we make around these issues have long-term, ever-expanding repercussions. The point of regret is not to try to change the past, but to shed light on the present. This is traditionally the realm of the humanities. What novels tell us is that regret is instructive. And the first thing regret tells us (much like its physical counterpart — pain) is that something in the present is wrong.