Any good quotations about regret (or the lack thereof)?
May 22, 2009 11:54 AM   Subscribe

Occasionally I find myself regretting and second-guessing decisions I've made in the past. Whenever this happens, it naturally wreaks havoc on my happiness and self-esteem. I'd like to be able to cheer myself up during such times. What are your favorite quotations about letting go of the past/looking toward the future/stopping regret/living in the present/etc.?
posted by punchdrunkhistory to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
You are the what you were of what you will be.
posted by mullingitover at 11:55 AM on May 22, 2009

Best answer: I tend to think about the good things that I have now that I might not have had I taken a different path or made a different decision along the way. For instance, had I not given up on college in my 20s I would never have met my current husband of 17 years.

Your 'bad' decisions and 'regrettable' experiences create as much opportunity as the ones you are more proud of.
posted by troybob at 12:05 PM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

(doh, sorry...nothing quoted/quotable there)
posted by troybob at 12:06 PM on May 22, 2009

"Two tears in a bucket, motherfuck it." --The Lady Chablis, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

"Wherever you go, there you are." --Buckaroo Banzai.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:07 PM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Totally cliché, and sometimes offensive, but I find Courage Wolf gets me out of the "woulda-coulda-shoulda" blues.
posted by lekvar at 12:13 PM on May 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

And the book of the same name: Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
The book explains the practice of mindfullness, which is very helpful in accepting everything as it is in the moment. It's a quick and easy read and may yield quotes/concepts that will come to mind during your down times.
posted by deadcrow at 12:17 PM on May 22, 2009

Best answer: "Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it" - Kierkegaard. Applicable, of course, to any fork-in-the-road situation, not just marriage. A sort of happiness-through-pessimism approach, ie., you never actually had an option that would have led to perfect happiness, so stop imagining you did.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 12:24 PM on May 22, 2009 [7 favorites]

The AA Promises

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through.

We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.

We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.

We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.

No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.

That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.

We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.

Self-seeking will slip away.

Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.

Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us.

We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.

We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises? We think not.

They are being fulfilled among us — sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.

They will always materialize if we work for them.

· Alcoholics Anonymous p83-84
posted by netbros at 12:24 PM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Daddy, what does regret mean?"

"Well son, the funny thing about regret is, it's better to regret something you have done, than to regret something you haven't done.
And by the way, if you see your mom this weekend, be sure and tell her, SATAN, SATAN, SATAN!!!"
-Butthole Surfers, Sweat Loaf - from Locust Abortion Technician

I have a lot of regrets in my life. Some not so big, some huge. I regret things I didn't finish, or things I tried to be but wasn't, or wanted to do but couldn't. I'm sure every human with a conscious brain on the planet is the same way.

When I find myself staring down the barrel of one of those regrets, I do a few things. One is something I read years ago in a book by an Zen master whose name I've forgotten - I focus on that thought with all my attention, and I either take the time to examine it and try to figure out where it came from, or I just let it go. I accept that I did that thing (or didn't, as the case may be) that is causing the regretful thought, and just move past it and go on with my day. I don't try to suppress the thought, I don't pretend that the thought didn't happen - I accept it, examine it if I want, and move on.

And sometimes, when I do stop to examine those thoughts, I let myself see what has happened in my life because of those decisions. For example, had I been successful at X (which I failed at), I would have never met Y, who married Z, and Z is who introduced me to my wife. At times I have to remind myself of all the good things I have in my life, some of which I wouldn't have without some of the regrets I've accumulated along the way.
posted by ralan at 12:40 PM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, I do that. I used to work myself into a frenzy of shame over all the dumb things I've done. Sometimes, ridiculously minor things from years ago -- stupid things I said, times I was accidentally rude -- would have me just feeling crummy for hours.

I think some of us get something out of self-flagellation, something we need. I suspect it is a way to mentally give onesself a pass when facing an onerous task, or a hard decision, in the here-and-now. You're worried about something, for example, and you start thinking about something dumb you did in the past, and castigating yourself for that, and you can maybe feel off-the-hook -- the past thing is over, nothing can alter the outcome now, and in a way that's comforting. AND you're thinking about something crummy, not something good, so you are freeing yourself from the fear of the current situation working out badly -- by talking yourself into believing it is the norm for you. That what I think I was doing anyway -- fear of failure.

It comes back, but I have a mantra now. here it is:

Oh-who-gives-a-fuck-everyone-makes-mistakes. What am I doing RIGHT NOW that I'm going to regret?

And damn if there isn't an answer, every time. Usually it's something I'm not doing, that I know I should be.
posted by Methylviolet at 1:11 PM on May 22, 2009 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I know you're asking about specific quotes to help you live in the future (and that's great), but I think there's an underlying thought pattern going on that's worth looking at, too, so that -- as Gerard Manley Hopkins says -- you can "leave comfort root-room." You want to create the soil in which a more positive way of thinking can grow. The reason I say that is this sentence:

Whenever this happens, it naturally wreaks havoc on my happiness and self-esteem. actually a false statement. There's nothing "natural" at all about it -- feeling unhappy is not inevitable or the only emotional reaction available to you when you look back on things you regret. Assuming that it is may be part of the problem.

You can choose to change the lens you look through when you consider your past, so that thinking about your past becomes productive rather than destructive. You can use your regrets to guide you in terms of making different decisions in the future. You can even feel grateful for them, in a way, from the standpoint of seeing it as an opportunity to enrich your life by learning from your mistakes, and to appreciate what you have in your life now that you wouldn't have had otherwise (as ralan already mentioned eloquently).

See, here's the thing. We pretty much all have regrets. But, much like "worrying" and "fretting," "regretting" isn't a useful activity, even though it can take up an awful lot of time. What's useful is reflecting on why we chose to do (or not do) what we did (or didn't) at the time, and how we can make different choices in the future. For example, I look back on my life and I see a number of things I really wish I had done but didn't, usually because I was almost cripplingly afraid of failure. And yes, I regret that, because I willingly limited my life in ways I wish I hadn't.

But I have two options when I look back. I can either A) brood and feel awful because I was so scared of failure then, or B) decide that I won't allow those same fearful impulses to dominate my choices now. I spent years doing option A, until I decided that not only did I like option B a whole lot better, but that my life actually improved dramatically when I started putting it into practice.

I suspect that you might run a lot of negative commentary about yourself in your head -- probably so automatically that you might not even realize it, so that the negative monologue simply becomes a kind of mental air you breathe. But the negative stories that run in our heads are usually both very rigid and very distorted. "I'm a failure/I'm an idiot/I've ruined my life/everyone hates me/etc." -- these are all no-win, all-or-nothing statements that inevitably foster feelings of unhappiness (and paralysis). And not only that; they are also untrue.

The trick is to learn to habitually turn around the monologues you tell yourself, so that they are more positive and more realistic. "I didn't go to the right college because I'm an idiot" becomes "I did the best I could, even if the situation didn't turn out as I hoped." "I always fuck everything up because of my temper" becomes "I want to figure out a better way to deal with conflict at work."

I still occasionally find myself wandering off in my head, down those paths of regret, from time to time. And then, I simply say very gently to myself: "be present." If I'm worried about something, I simply say: "whatever happens, I can handle it." You can too. Good luck.
posted by scody at 1:14 PM on May 22, 2009 [6 favorites]

What would the world look like if trees regretted their past and planned their future?
posted by Merlin144 at 1:14 PM on May 22, 2009

Best answer: I believe that very few people grow up. Most people grow older, but growing up is challenging. Many people get older, honor their credit cards, matriculate into and graduate out of schools, get married and have children. They call that growing up, maturing. It’s not. It is simply growing old. One has to assume responsibility for the time one takes up and the space one occupies. To grow up is to stop putting blame on parents. To grow up is to care not only about one’s own self but about somebody else’s, somebody yet to come. To grow up is to be in a constant state of forgiving. Forgiving yourself for not knowing better, or for knowing better and not doing better, and then releasing people from your own anger and angst. You must stop carrying them around in their ignorance and stupidity and cruelty, giving them purchase on your back, and always having them to poke and to pinch and to carry blame.

~ Maya Angelou
excerpted from Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female by Willa Shalit, 2006
posted by anniecat at 1:23 PM on May 22, 2009 [19 favorites]

Oh, and seconding Courage Wolf. I figured that went without saying.

"Fall seven times. Stand up eight."
posted by mullingitover at 1:26 PM on May 22, 2009

My absolute favorite reminder not to worry about the past OR what people think of me:

"F*** 'em if they can't take a joke."
posted by DrGail at 1:34 PM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

My wife and I have this convo occasionally. We've both had some soap opera-worthy things happen in our lives. But the thing is, you went through that to be the person you are NOW and to be in the place you are TODAY. All you can do is live right now.
posted by CwgrlUp at 3:47 PM on May 22, 2009

Currently hanging on my wall is a poster with a serene golden Buddha and this quotation, ascribed to him, which you might find helpful - "The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly."

Sometimes when things get too much I sit on my bed facing Buddha, meditate a little, and contemplate this thought. Sounds silly, but it actually helps me.
posted by Devika at 10:47 PM on May 22, 2009

That tortoise on Kung-Fu Panda was pretty cool. "Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present."
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:19 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, here's a Taoist story:

Once upon a time a peasant had a horse. This horse ran away,so the peasant's neighbours came to console him for his bad luck. He answered: "Maybe".

The day after the horse came back, leading 6 wild horses with it. The neighbours came to congratulate him on such good luck. The peasant said: "Maybe".

The day after, his son tried to saddle and ride on one of the wild horses, but he fell down and broke his leg. Once again the neighbours came to share that misfortune. The peasant said: "Maybe".

The day after, soldiers came to conscript the youth of the village, but the peasant's son was not chosen because of his broken leg. When the neighbours came to congratulate, the peasant said again :"May be".

posted by atrazine at 4:30 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Holding on to the past is my only regret."- Michelle Shocked
posted by pointilist at 1:03 PM on May 23, 2009

When I get to feeling regretty, Wild Geese by Mary Oliver is often helpful.

Also, I saw this on Jezebel the other day. Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat Pray Love fame (I know.) talks in an interview about her mother's experience working as a nurse at Planned Parenthood in the 70s and dealing with women who were having abortions:

"she told me once that… You know, she use to council on girls and women who were coming to plan parenthood with really big decisions to make. And she said to me once that… it was so daunting because, you know, they wanted advice and it was their lives and it was their bodies and she said that she would tell them, 'Please do me this great service and please do me this great favor and please do yourself this great favor. And try to remember, 10 years from now, when you’re second guessing this decision that you made, that you made the very best decision that you could make on this day with the information that you had today. As the years go by, you’ll have more information and you might wish that you had done things differently. But just don’t forget that on the day that you had to make the choice you didn’t know and you only knew what you have now. Don’t abuse yourself later for what you didn’t know now.'"

Seems like that advice could apply to most things, really.
posted by 912 Greens at 6:23 PM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer:
“ I think,” Tehanu said in her soft, strange voice, “that when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn’t do. All that I might have been and couldn’t be. All the choices I didn’t make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven’t lived yet. That will be my gift back to to the world that gave me the life I did live, the love I loved, the breath I breathed.”
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Other Wind
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:50 PM on May 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: There were many beautiful answers, and I must thank all of you (even those who provided not a quote, but advice in general) - this will definitely be something to look back upon. Thanks so much.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 8:52 PM on May 24, 2009

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