I’ve always found it a tad bombastic when I hear people say there is nothing in their life they regret. The fact of the matter is that none of us make it out of here without a few self-inflicted wounds. To regret one’s own failures is not a sign of a life not well lived. To the contrary, there is great depth of character to be formed by staring deep into our errors, learning from them, and, eventually, forgiving ourselves for them. This post hopes to offer some useful framing to help you work through the best way to respond to the mistakes you will inevitably make.
Of course, not all failures are equal – some cause momentary embarassment or frustration, while others can alter the entire course of a life. To find solace for our regrets we need to understand the difference between everyday idiocy and true catastrophe. I’ll pick each off one separately.
We’ve all been there. Perhaps your mouth spoke before your brain had completed its due diligence, and now you look quite foolish. Or perhaps you unintentionally offended someone you just met. Or perhaps you made an obvious mistake at work, or on a test. Whatever it is, the self-commentary kicks in soon enough – this episode clearly proves that you are the most idiotic, deranged human that ever drew breath, and that you must be locked away for good.
At such times, the wise person would remember a simple truth – we are all barely evolved apes wrestling against the limited capacity of our pre-frontal cortex to cope with an environment that is very different from our original home in the savannah. It’s not that you are particularly brutish or stupid, it’s just that the job of getting through life when there are so many ways to go wrong is very hard.
Coping with everyday idiocy requires a healthy sense of how much weight should be placed on our negative inner voices. Much of the critical self-talk that follows when we make a mess of things is a distant echo of some of the less generous figures we have had to cope with throughout our lives – an unkind friend, a thoughtless teacher, a bully, an overly critical partner, or other such memorable sources of unhelpful input. Next time try to think about a gentler, more loving voice. Perhaps your mum. She doesn’t think you’re a fool, she thinks you’re a wonderful and charmingly human person, and she is right.
It is true that there are some failures that cannot be brushed off so readily. Perhaps you’ve made a truly serious mistake professionally that has cost you your job or your reputation. Perhaps you’ve lost years of your life and all your savings as a result of a failed business venture. Or perhaps, despite your best efforts to keep it alive, a long-term relationship has failed and you are now left to pick up the pieces.
Such losses should not be trivialised. You will not wake up tomorrow and have forgotten that they ever occurred. Your life has now fundamentally changed. The hurt will last and a scar will form. But you will come out wiser, surer of who you are and what you value, and hopefully ready and willing to prevent those in your life from making the same mistakes as you.
In such situations, the wise person won’t play down what has happened. But they will remember the importance of resilience.
Someone once told me that resilience means being able to continually ask ‘what next?’ This has always stuck with me. One chapter of your life may have come to a close. But, and perhaps not yet but with time, you will turn the page and start your next journey stronger than before.
History is peppered with stories of massively succesful men and women who trod a long path of failure and disappointment before eventually reaching the summit. There is much comfort to be found in the stories of the likes of Thomas Edison, RH Macy, Walt Disney, JK Rowling, and many more. My personal favourite is Abraham Lincoln, who suffered a long list of political failures before eventually being elected President. He wrote the following words: “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure”. That is resilience.
Ultimately, we are all incredibly fallible beings. An attitude of compassion, both to others and to yourself, and a willingness to look past failures and move forward is absolutely essential for making the most of your brief time on the planet.
To finish, below are some words of comfort from the always profound Emerson.
“Be not the slave of your own past. Plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep and swim far, so you will come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old.”