April 24, 2012 § 1 Comment
One of the stories that filtered up to me as part of my family history is the story of my paternal great-grandfather, who was a dentist and inventor in a small town on the eastern shore of Maryland. In the early 20th century, he became intrigued by the internal combustion engine that was powering the new sensation, the Model T. My great-grandfather thought he could improve the carburetor and, as the story goes, invented and patented a modified version. He took the idea to the Ford Motor Company and the company decided they wanted his invention. So the Ford Motor Company, at the advent of the automobile industry, offered my great-grandfather two alternative forms of payment- a shiny brand new Model T or some stock in their new company. He was never prouder, I was told, than the first day he got to drive his new Model T around Pocomoke City, Maryland. Meanwhile, the Ross family motored through the century in their genteel poverty. What if?
In my own life, I have made choices that I could easily second-guess. Job opportunities that I passed on, investment decisions that I made, and so on. But I could spend forever spinning out wistful imaginings about what my life would have looked like had I chosen differently, or had my ancestor taken the stock, and nothing would change. My great-grandfather is still cruising town in his Model T and I am still right here, right now. And on top of that, we cannot possibly know what any other path would have looked like over time. My ancestor takes the stock and then what? That story could go in an infinite number of directions, many of them not so good for my family. I could have taken that other job but how could I know this would have been a better choice? Such imaginings thus seem really quite pointless.
And yet, being a pointless waste of time isn’t the worst thing about pondering- what if? Asking “what if” possesses a corrosive potential not present in other time-wasting activities. When we ask this question, we have started down the path to regret. And in regret we lose ourselves.
“We lose ourselves.” The words have a nice ring but what, exactly, does that mean? Regret takes us away from the strong sure sense of self that we must possess to live fully and presently. It does this, first, by taking us out of the present moment and turning our attention to the past. But that’s just the beginning.
Regret is more than a distraction. It entails judgment. We judge ourselves to have failed in some way, to have made a mistake. If only we had chosen better, we say. Regret is like a one-two punch that makes it impossible to be engaged actively and strongly in what is right in front of us. We are somewhere else in our heads and, at the same time, we are beating down our sense of confidence and strength through the act of judging ourselves. We lose ourselves in the pit of regret- unable to change an unalterable past and unable to be present in our moment.
So, as always, the important lesson is simply expressed but difficult to live. Regret nothing.