“No regrets” is one of the most virtuous phrases of the Modern Age. To have regrets is to admit weakness or care in a time when strength and YOLO-ism are espoused as the correct way to proceed.
To live without regret means either that you view mistakes as wholly inconsequential or that you are so preternaturally at peace that you believe everything happens for a reason and that all of those reasons will become clear in your lifetime and will result in positive outcomes.
Like many things, the idea of No Regrets is the product of much societal pressure. We’re told that this is the way to live, and so we say it even when we don’t believe it. On our best days, we might almost mean it, we may be close to truly thinking that we have done everything the right way or else have accepted everything we didn’t. We might have heard enough other people say it that it becomes some ritualistic incantation, a thoughtless ejaculation that we nervously repeat because we’re supposed to. There are a lot of these in life.
On our worst days and weakest moments, though, No Regrets is a lie. It’s a pressure that threatens to crack us just like “I’m OK,” and “Good,” and “I don’t need anything.” When I sank to the ground for the second time after being hit by that car, I thought I wasn’t getting back up again. Ever. And at that moment, a trillion regrets rushed through my mind. There was no calm peace or easy resolution, no warm light or welcoming hands with drapey white robes. There was sheer terror and darkness and concern for the people I’d left unloved and the business I’d left unfinished, the half-written stories I’d left unresolved and the way it all ended so unremarkably.
I wish I were enough of a badass to have thrown up a rock and roll hand sign and said “No regrets” to the paramedics and firefighters and friends and girlfriend who surrounded me. But that would’ve been a lie. And lying is the last thing you want to do when it all seems to be ending way too quickly.
* * *
Regret is on my mind a lot lately. Every bike ride I go on brings with it the haunting refrain of plastic and metal and flesh and carbon fiber all scraping and cracking together. The hollow thud and loud, inescapable ringing of a brain that is most definitely not ok. And the ensuing months of low-grade hell, of treating people in a way that creates constant regret. Every car that cuts things a little too close or creeps a little too far past the stop sign triggers what is known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But this does much more than simply make my heartrate spike or my head ache—which it already does all the time. It triggers a domino effect, just like the initial crash did. It causes me to remember my worst and most erratic moments, the manic imprisonment of an earnest soul inside a damaged mind, the constant and inexplicable mistreatment of people I love dearly. It is difficult to convey the subtleties of mania to the outside observer.
Last night I watched a few episodes of a show called Transparent. It features multiple trans-gender protagonists and their immediate families in situations that are unfathomably complicated. It is the type of show that presents an inconvenient truth to both sides, that will make the most conservative and the most liberal-minded viewer wince equally in its unblinking presentation of life as a human. There are celebratory moments, when the agéd protagonist and her ex-wife (pronouns get complicated here) seem to celebrate who they’ve both become in feel-good family moments, but it is never that easy. None of them could say “No regrets” and mean it. The very pain and power of this show is the weight of regret and circumstantial misfortune. Reconciliation does not exactly erase regret.
* * *
I have a sneaking suspicion that No Regrets creates the same sort of pressure as society’s continued insistence on sweeping any version of mental illness under the rug. Even in today’s paradigm where we supposedly have defeated all stigmas, it is still highly difficult to speak candidly about being not-ok.
It is one thing to be at peace with the past and optimistic about the future. To not constantly live in a state of dwelling on historical mistakes. But No Regrets is too much.
The inside of a loud, lonely car is a plaintive echo chamber. And in this case, that car is also the physical manifestation of a No Regrets attitude. A bucket list item crossed off before its time because of the realization that time is not guaranteed. In so many ways, reconnecting with simple passions from a happier time has been restorative and beautiful beyond my wildest dreams. But it is also complicated. To rediscover joy with a heavy heart and to experience simple pleasures conditionally is the reality of life lived. But it is certainly not without regret.
I am interested in experiencing the gamut of emotions and not painting a pretty but unrealistic picture of myself or of life in general. Denying ourselves the ability to grieve and apologize and strive for better in light or in spite of the worst is denying ourselves the ability to live fully. I am relentlessly forgiven and have much faith in the future, but I also have plenty of regret about the past. This is not unhealthy. Would Love Without End, Amen make me tear up if I hadn’t been an ungrateful asshole to an unconditionally loving father only to make it to the other side of his cancer scare and my bike wreck? That is a poignant emotion. Sitting in church crying silent tears for the years I spent silently depressed and mistreating everyone in my life is better than smiling and saying “No regrets” and lying about my “struggles” in the way too-common in today’s conditioned faux-humility lexicon.
Lately, regret is nuanced. I am living out a road trip in one of my all-time dream cars, reconnecting with old friends and catching trout in new places along the way. This is an envy-inducing dream trip for so many onlookers, and indeed it crosses items off the proverbial bucket list. This is unequivocally good and helps me find the brightness in the present and future. But it does not eliminate regrets, atone for the hearts I’ve broken and the things I’ve taken for granted and the times that I made the wrong choice, even if that choice was between two good options.
Some people might refer to such a trip as “running away from things,” but I view it as “running away with them.” Hours in rivers and on roads, almost always alone, has a way of making you dwell on minutiae and resolve to do better.
You don’t leave any stones unturned, whether the literal type that you drift a nymph behind in search of a big brown trout or the metaphorical geology of actions and reactions and thoughts and dreams. You fall asleep with your thoughts and wake up to them, and you pass the time trying to focus on an elk hair caddis drifting in the current while also daydreaming about a million other things at once. You miss a fish striking your fly because you were still thinking about how strange it was to feel like you were duct taped to a runaway train while your concussed brain caused you act strangely for weeks on end. You miss one turn and then another because you wonder if job security is worth enduring constant small insults to your God-given talent and flight anxiety when you’re booked to fly somewhere six hours away for an eight hour video shoot. You wish someone were in the passenger seat who isn’t, and you wonder if they ever will be.
There is a difference between having no regrets and learning to live with them. A fisherman does not hang it up for good because of “the one that got away.” He returns to that water and to others, seeking that one and every one. A true triumph of the human spirit is not lying your way into esteem because you regret nothing, but finding a place in your schema for the regret you feel, and doing everything in your power to understand it and avoid making the same mistake twice. There is infinite grace. But there is no place for a phrase that puts pressure on us to be dishonest and delusional and to deny the full spectrum of feeling.