We’ve all been there. We were told to live a life with no regrets. We routinely pathologize it as whiny or non-utilitarian. But in the unlikeliest of places, in a tiny Canadian town called Russell, I found out the importance of regret.
The popular culture of self-help literature that our modern generation shoves in our face makes us feel as though our lives are less exciting and less deep when we feel sad, when we make mistakes, and when we realize in hindsight that we made a wrong decision. We squirm at the slightest thought of failure and the possibility of remorse.
Go to your neighborhood bookstore and walk down the self-help aisle, and you’ll be bombarded by messages like “Don’t worry, be happy” or “The regret avoidance manual”. We follow these messages at the expense of our own humanity. We’ve been conditioned to be perfectionist, and this quest for perfectionism paralyzes us. Isn’t it ironic, that we become less happy the more we court perfection and shy away from life’s blemishes?
I regret not looking at my bedroom one last time before I left Russell a few days ago – the bed that faces the window and allows the citrus sun to penetrate it with warmth, the vanilla-scented carpet floor that warms my feet, the life-size mirror that greets me in the morning, the asymmetrical lampshade that’s reminiscent of my late-night hot chocolates.
I regret saying that I didn’t mind the cold because, as soon as the first snow fell, I couldn’t bike around town and I realized I was acutely disappointed. I missed autumn and my long walks with my cousins.
I regret saying that I couldn’t stand the cold because it had been fun in its own ways. Besides, wasn’t it the snow that allowed my cousins and me to be able to go sledding and tubing in the first place? Wasn’t it the reason I scrutinized the snowflakes’ complex geometry and felt a sense of deep wonder as I headed joyfully to a coffee shop?
I regret that I used social media more often than necessary, that I checked Facebook more frequently than I visited my blog, but I’m glad I’m learning more about myself and I’m becoming more intentional in what I do.
I regret that I didn’t walk enough on some days, though I tried to compensate it by walking more on other days. But I also learned that even if daily discipline was one of my strengths, it was okay to have bad hair days.
I regret that I tried to control everything, including the outcomes of my choices, but the vast prairies of Russell taught me to be more open to the unexpected and to the surprises of life. They taught me to have more space for forgiveness when other people ruin my plans and to be open to receiving more than what my original plans have the potential of giving.
I regret that I get affected by the slightest criticism against my non-conformist views. In a small Midwestern town of 1300 people, a nail that sticks out gets hammered in, but I’m learning to fight even in small ways. I’m starting to meet allies who believe in my message without asking me to change. I need not tone down my writing voice for the sake of attracting a wider audience, because my ideas will spread like wildfires if they ignite the right kind of people. I learned to let myself write, for the right followers will appear.
I regret that I had to leave home to chase my dreams of exploring the world. But I also know that I’d regret it even more if I stayed even when my heart desperately wished to jump out of my chest.
They say there’s no use in crying over spilled milk, but doesn’t grieving make us stronger? Don’t the low points in our lives help clear the cobwebs in our minds so we can think more clearly about what we truly value? Regret is like a coiled spring. The harder you fall and push the spring down, the stronger you bounce back up. It helps us change our course and our future behavior when a dead end appears before us.
As a traveler, I’m starting to learn to befriend regret. I regret that I learned it just now, but now I don’t regret that I ever regret. I am faced with countless opportunities to live and grow. It reminds me that, though these possibilities are enticing, I have weak points. For every opportunity I say yes to, there are a thousand others that get pushed into the background. I will always return to these traumatic forks in the road to examine my past choices so I can make better ones in the future.
I regret that I had so much free time in Russell that perhaps I was slacking off instead of being productive. But, in the time-poor culture of this modern world I grew up in, I realized I was so fortunate. How many people can admit to having all the the time in the world? How many can proudly say they’ve been silent enough to actually hear what their minds are saying? How many can claim they’ve been somewhere so different, so unknown, yet so meaningful?
We are hungry for more. We are so scared of not missing out lest we regret our choices. We define travel as going to big, known cities solely, but how about the ones that don’t make it to the books? We bring the rat race culture even to our travels. We consult 10 itineraries for a three-day, one-city trip. We compete with our colleagues to determine who has had the best vacation. And for what? For the feeling of certainty that we hadn’t missed out on anything, that there was nothing we would ever regret.
Regret taught me that it’s okay not to know the outcomes of our choices. As humans, we want to embrace possibilities, but we also want to know exactly what these possibilities hold. We dismiss surprises offhand. We dislike mysteries. We pathologize uncertainty.
We always want to be sure that we get the end results we envision while almost entirely ignoring that our choices are not the only factors at play. Other people’s choices also influence the outcome of our choices. The chilly weather, your sister’s precious mug that you’ve just broken, the news about terrorist attacks in – these, too, play a role.
To avoid regret is to sternly believe that we can avoid mistakes. Regret things while you’re young and able, because when you’re in your deathbed, you can no longer change the things that haunt you with remorse. The worst thing about drowning in the murky waters of perfectionism is that, when we try too hard to avoid regret, we end up missing the bigger picture by worshiping our personal choices too much. Being a perfectionist is like having a strict adult watching our every move. Instead of deciding with intention, we become paralyzed.
Regret should not be an exercise in self-flagellation. Even if we’re going in the right direction, mistakes are inevitable. We will be disappointed, but regrets can teach us that life indeed is a process – a long process that demands victories and defeats, celebrations and condolences, simplicity and complexity. I guess the only real regret that we must avoid is to regret the same thing over and over again without learning from our past mistakes.
As travelers, we face more uncertainties than others, and it’s our responsibility to share our stories honestly and transparently. What this world needs is less of perfectionism and more of humanity.