Like snow, sleet and rain, emotions show up. Many float through our lives and move on, sometimes barely noticed. Others persist. Indeed, we can encourage them to move in, offer them food and shelter, and make them part of our personal journey. Good examples of this are disappointment and resentment.

I have a list of emotions that seem to me to have little redemptive value, and hence I work to ensure they do not move in with me. Near the top of the list are shame, guilt and regret. Feeling them is rarely enjoyable; prolonging the experience seems fruitless, though I have known others who have wanted me to get trapped in their mire.

I have just presented a bit of my mental mapping about emotions. I did this to create context for my reflections on regret. When I first recognized I wanted to write a posting on regret, it seemed a simple enterprise. Yet as I proceeded it became complex. I knew I did not permit regret to move in; I had less insight about why this was true.

From very early in my life, I have been surrounded by music, varied and plentiful. For me it has been a source of enjoyment and pleasure. And music creates memories. No significant event in my life exists without a musical sound track. Looking in the rear-view mirror, in my 80th year, I find the memories and the sound tracks often emerge into my consciousness together. I was surprised then, to discover I had begun to remember a specific song without a link to a specific memory. It was the song “What I Did for Love”.

I ignored this memory of a song, then noticed it kept recurring. I gave up and listened to the song on my phone a few times. Still the curiosity and obsession. So, I Googled and copied the lyrics to study them. The song itself is from “A Chorus Line” which I liked as a creative presentation of the dreams of young people. And I did love this song, in the movie and simply as music I enjoyed. I set out to study the lyrics, and of course found “…But I can’t regret what I did for love”.

I continued my lyric search: “Kiss today goodbye and point me toward tomorrow”. I spent a while trying to convince myself that my fixation on this song was related to my plans to move. Nope! It was about regret. “Won’t forget, can’t regret what I did for love”. I went back to my insistence on the absence of regret as a co-resident in my consciousness. I knew I have always been invested in not wasting life energy on regret. Here, however, was a modifier: “What I Did for Love”; the refusal to regret decisions made from the heart.

And realized that for me this was the most important part of understanding regret. It was not what one does or fails to do, but the reasons for the decisions made. Feeling a bit playful, I tried some alternate titles: What I Did for Greed, What I Did for Revenge, What I Did for Self-Aggrandizement. Clarity emerges. What I do for love, no matter how troublesome or difficult the outcomes, never evokes regret. I may wish I had been wiser, or more committed to self-care, or more courageous, but I do not regret the actions taken from a place of love. There are no assurances with love, so regret makes little sense, no matter what the outcomes.

I also realized that many times What I Did for Love had very disturbing outcomes. The list here is long and varied. And I realized, concurrently, that despite these outcomes, I did not regret acting on the love itself. It seems to me the greater threat would be to experience an invitation to love and find it too scary or dangerous or unsure to act on: here regret may seem quite appropriate. Then the emotion of regret emerges. Yet even here it seems giving it food and shelter is unwise: feel the remorse, study the cause, learn, and move on.

I realized that perhaps fear explains regret more than we realize: if we are fearful, we fail to act, and then regret choices made out of fear. It often is experienced as having not done something. I often find that for me only love is a larger force than the paralyzing impact of fear. Perhaps the challenge is really not distancing from regret so much as engaging in loving relationships. Perhaps the way to prevent regret is actually courage.

Recalling that you only can laugh at what you no longer fear, I began amusing myself with the circuitous route to this blog posting. I concluded that my belief that regret had little redemptive value was a belief contingent on my intentions. What I Did for Love was never evocative of regret, and I want to sustain that conviction. I owe Marvin Hamlisch a “Thank You“ note.

“Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless.”

-Chief Seattle -