One night many years ago, I was driving my Chrysler LeBaron convertible with the duct-taped top to a Target store near the Pennsylvania-Delaware border. I was in the area for a regional academic conference, and I needed, well, who knows what. I came to an intersection and saw the familiar red, illuminated letters through my driver’s-side window. There was little traffic. I got in the left lane and turned into the store’s parking lot.
Immediately, I was stuck. In mud. The intersection was a T, not a cross, as I had thought, and I had been looking at the back of the Target. There was no parking lot, just a grassy expanse between the road and the shopping center. After spinning the LeBaron’s wheels without effect and swearing just as unprofitably for several minutes, I called for a tow. When the truck came, the driver parked it on the road and unspooled a long cable from the winch. I asked him why he wasn’t going to hook the wheel lift up to the front of my car. “Just because you decided to get yourself stuck,” he replied, “doesn’t mean I have to.”
The kind of confident motion in the wrong direction that got me stuck is a long-standing feature of my romantic, professional, and online lives—of romantic, professional, and online lives generally. That night by the Target, for the better part of an hour, I wanted nothing more than to undo the decision, to yank it back from beyond the brink and do things differently. Of course, I couldn’t take the turn back, any more than you can take back an insult, a bullet, an affair, or a vote. You can’t make it so those things never happened. All you can do is regret them.
But you’re not supposed to. At least, not according to our collective store of cultural wisdom. Life is short. What’s done is done, and there’s no use worrying over it. Meanwhile, an infinitude of possible experience awaits you out in the world. Life happens now, and regret keeps you mired in the past. People get the words “no regrets” tattooed on their flesh, but we needn’t be so literal about this common truth. Every one of your actions is just as indelible. So if you’re going to regret your past behavior, you may as well regret the sunrise, or the tides. Instead of ruing our past, we should own it—our wins, losses, truths, lies, loves, cruelties, scars, jail terms, adolescent poems, tweets, everything—and enter the future with abandon. According to digital-age folklore, the only regrets that truly sting are over actions not taken: jobs not applied for, alluring beauties not dated, trips untaken, fears unfaced.
To test your commitment to the philosophy of no regrets, imagine, as Friedrich Nietzsche suggests, that a demon comes to find you “in your loneliest loneliness” to tell you that you will repeat all your actions, past and future, in exact sequence, an infinite number of times. Even the demon’s visit, and your response to it, will recur forever. “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?” Nietzsche asks. “Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”11xFriedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York, NY: Vintage, 1974), 273–74. First published 1882.
How well disposed, exactly? How well disposed is someone who refers to himself in the third person or says, to a reality show’s camera, that he has no regrets, none at all? How well disposed is a typical Kardashian? Or a Trump? During the 2016 presidential campaign, Megyn Kelly asked then-candidate Donald Trump whether he regretted any of his false and offensive comments about her, about Heidi Cruz, about John McCain. Trump cinched up his face, bobbed his head, and said, very quickly, “Yeah, I guess so.” Then he immediately steadied himself and continued, more directly, chopping the air with one hand, “but you have to go forward. You make a mistake, you go forward. And, you know, you can correct the mistake, but to look back and say: ‘Gee whiz, I wish I didn’t do this or that,’ I don't think that’s good.... In a certain way, I don’t even think that’s healthy.”22xQuoted in Jenna Johnson, “Donald Trump Does Not Apologize for Anything—Even Things He Seems to Regret,” Washington Post, May 17, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/05/17/donald-trump-does-not-apologize-for-anything-even-things-he-seems-to-regret/.
“No regrets” sounds great on TV and shares well on social media because we equate decisiveness with importance and control. But to live proudly without regret is to ratify your own idiocy, to take unjustified self-satisfaction in your existence. Your past actions made you who you are, sure, but maybe who you are isn’t so great. Without regret, you have no way to reckon with that. Knowing that dating that person blew up several friendships and netted you an STD (its own eternal recurrence), do you relish the thought of repeating the affair over and over, forever?
To be fair, there are more sophisticated versions of the “no regrets” ethos than the ones tagged #yolo (“you only live once”) on Instagram. Because the past is unchangeable, a Stoic might say, it’s irrational to attach any psychological interest to it at all. “Remove aversion, then, from all things that are not in our control,” wrote the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, “and transfer it to things contrary to the nature of what is in our control.”33xEpictetus, The Enchiridion, trans. Elizabeth Carter (Internet Classics Archive, n.d.), chap. 2, http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html. There’s no point in crying over spilled oil or wine, Epictetus adds. Such losses are “the price paid for equanimity, for tranquility, and nothing is to be had for nothing.”44xIbid., chap. 12.
Today’s Stoics are economists and psychologists who espouse rational decision-making. We should take an unsentimental view toward sunk costs, they counsel, and make our decisions based on the future we wish to live, not the past we’ve already lived. One prominent cognitive therapist writes, “You can bemoan the loss in your stock portfolio, or stare at the [ugly] tie in your closet, or review all the terrible things in the relationship that is over. Or you can focus on making your life better now. The great thing about making your life better now is that you actually have control over what happens now. You can actually do something. Unless you have a time machine, you can’t go back and change the past.”55xRobert Leahy, “Reversing Regrets: 7 Steps to Moving On,” HuffPost, July 19, 2012, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/no-regrets_b_1676117. We might think of ourselves at every moment as a new manager who arrives at the company and has to survey things as they currently are and forge an optimal way forward. Handwringing over our predecessors’ choices won’t help us maximize the next quarter’s profits.
But ethics is about more than rationality. It’s also about relationships with strangers, including the strangers we each are to ourselves. Regret allows us to enter into an ethical relationship with who we have been in the past. The self-as-eternally-new-manager model is right about one thing: Even the person you were a moment ago can seem alien to who you are now, given a sufficiently consequential decision separating the one from the other. What kind of nitwit drives straight into a muddy field, thinking it’s a parking lot? I would never do that. But that guy? What was wrong with him?
Moral growth doesn’t just mean looking to the future but reconciling past and present selfhood. It demands regret. The person who regrets nothing becomes a conduit for experience without being enlarged or deepened by it. It passes right through her uninterrupted, never bending back on itself, never pooling, never overflowing her banks.