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  • Reverend James Squire

Regrets, I've Had A Few

“Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then too few to mention.” is part of the lyrics of a song, My Way, that was a signature song for Frank Sinatra. Sinatra doesn’t seem to give regrets their importance to how essential they are to understanding and changing our lives. Daniel Pink, a thought leader, who is a social psychology author, has written his recent book on the power of regret in our lives. I read people like Pink because I like to read people who open my eyes to seeing issues in a new way that challenges my basic assumptions. Before taking a look at the content of his most recent book, I could have written that lyric to Sinatra’s song and would have been uninformed about the power of understanding regrets in a new way.

I will summarize Daniel Pink’s ideas in The Power of Regret and merge them with some of my own observations. Pink thinks that our regrets can tell us ultimately what we value which is one of the central threads and goals of ethics. I phrased it another way in my memoir, The Times of My Life that “you shouldn’t forget where you came from and what shaped you. We must be aware of the past, the present, and the future sometimes in a short period of time. It is like driving a car where you look from time to time in the rearview mirror, focus on what you are doing right now, and look through the windshield to see where you are going.” Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forward.” That is a key lesson for me.

One of the things that we need back in our awareness are our regrets. Pink organized an elaborate study of 16,000 people called the American Regret Project. Look hard at your past regrets and you can see what you rally value. This goes against our impulses that are driven by our culture that says, “Never look back!” Guilt is something that we have done wrong. Disappointed is a feeling about what someone or a group did wrong. There are more regrets about non action than action taken was one of the conclusions of his study.

According to Pink, there are four categories of regrets: “Foundation are regrets about stability. If only I had done the work. Boldness are regrets if only I had taken a chance. People don’t regret things if they actually did something. Connection regrets are about people who we love and who love us.”

Moral regrets are when I don’t feel that I am trustworthy or any other value. “Ultimately regrets are about meaning, purpose, and love.” We need to handle our regrets more wisely and not necessarily have less of them.

Pink advocates for us to have two things that I focused on in counseling others, more self-compassion because we are hard on ourselves. Think about a day when you had a number of people compliment you and one person was critical of you. The people will always indicate that they would remember that one criticism. One of the big issues for students that I taught was seeing an incident in their life as defining who they were. I quickly had to work against that feeling which is largely expressed as a regret for feeling or doing something that was not part of their character or how they wanted to be seen.

One of the interesting points which surprised me with Daniel Pink’s research was that there were very few people who regretted things that they bought. It is only when it is something like gambling that has a repetitive theme for the purchase that regret surfaces. Students today don’t have enough contact with negative emotions. They don’t embrace them. It is why I have repeatedly said “Learn to fail or fail to learn.” Regrets most often are about relationships. I have written extensively about the “social media” cause of regret as young people are constantly exposed to those “happy people without a care in the world.” They regret not having that. Hence the phenomenon of FOMO, the fear of missing out. I took care of a large school community which put me in touch with the back stories of students, parents, faculty, and alumni. The perfect parent or family doesn’t exist except if they are denying their situation or just fail to see their challenges for them having too much investment in creating a perfect world for others to see.

One of Pink’s ideas that I hadn’t seen before is “distinguishing a bad decision from a bad outcome. We can’t allow regret to conflate the two.”

The most enduring drives of human beings are contained in positive psychology. We can’t live in a perpetual state of happiness. What brings happiness is knowing our purpose, our meaning, the importance of engagement with others, and doing something for others outside of yourself. Giving and gratitude yield happiness. It could mean how God is involved in our lives based our relationship to the religions of the world. For me that is Christianity.

One of the teachings that I drove home in ethics class relates to disappointment and its cousin regret. One of my themes was to remind students that you can’t do anything regarding issues or people out of your control, but you can do everything by how you respond. Make sure that your response is kind to you the student, and those around you. Compassion for yourself and others is a guiding principle.

Don’t minimize regrets which is done often in our culture as is seen and heard in Frank Sinatra’ s lyric, “Regrets I have had a few. But then too few to mention.” I am a big fan of Sinatra, but not that line in the lyrics of his signature song.

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