On regret and affirmation

26 05 2014

In common with most people who have what could be a characterised as a positive attitude, I am prone to asserting that I have no regrets. In looking at my c.v. as part of my goal of adding another post to my NED portfolio I’ve had cause to contemplate regret in the context of the crazy paving that makes up my career path.

Some of the choices I’ve made seem odd when abstracted onto paper and while some were made for sound professional reasons most were made to suit my personal circumstances. The move from executive to self-employment coincided with a relationship change and relocation to Scotland, for example. I wonder where I would have been had I stayed in the corporate world and continued an executive career in the biotechnology industry. This does not, I think, constitute regret but such contemplation does allow the possibility of regret and regret is a complex beast – inseparable from it’s opposite, affirmation.

People with a profound disability can insist that they wouldn’t have it any other way. They may embrace the disability as a way of affirming the life that they are living rather than regretting the loss of the life that they might have lived. Under these circumstances, new treatments to restore, for example sight or hearing, can be rejected. 

To illustrate by taking another example, someone disabled by injury may commit themselves to becoming a wheelchair athlete of international repute. They may go on to compete at an Olympic games and be so successful as to be victorious in their chosen sport. Possession of a gold medal, I think, would encourage a greater affirmation of the injury compared to someone with similar disability condemned to a life of poverty and dependence. The individual who has gained the gold medal is also less likely to regret the loss of mobility.

Affirmation of the life being lived leads some with congenital disabilities to oppose prenatal screening on the grounds, amongst others perhaps, that being able to choose to abort a foetus with the same condition they have implies that their own life is not worth living. Or is worth less.

On the other hand, I listened to an account only recently of a woman with brittle bone disease who had decided not to have children on the grounds that she did not wish her offspring to suffer in the same way she had suffered, with long stays in hospital and many, many operations. In this case, while the woman acknowledged that if she did give birth to a child disabled in this way she would come to love it and would not regret it’s birth, this would not be, for her, good enough reason to go through with a pregnancy.

Yet, taking this further, she did not wish that they had never been born. She could affirm her own life while denying the chance of the same life to the next generation.

No one else is harmed by choosing not to create another life but what if living the life you want comes at the expense of another?

A friend of mine separated from her husband of 25 years. He decided that he needed to go his own way in order to live the life he wanted for himself. He went back to the life had before marriage and kids; footloose and fancy free. He has no regrets. He may regret having not lived this kind of life throughout all of his life, but does not regret leaving the marriage in order to live this new life.  What of my friend? When questioned she will say very firmly that she wishes that she had never met or married him. When asked about her children she insists that she would have still had kids with someone else, would still have loved them; they’d just be different kids. The affirmation of her own life, even including feelings towards her own children, though her love of them is not in question, is diminished by the choices her husband made. So regret is also sited with others and I would argue that one cannot simply affirm our own life choices without acknowledging some regret for the consequences to others.

In the broader, everyday context none of our choices are without consequence for others. I may buy groceries from my local store or from a major retailer on an out of town shopping complex. If I choose the latter the local store might close, people could lose their jobs which might have catastrophic consequences for them as individuals. It is not possible to measure the impact of every decision we make on everyone else but an awareness is, I think, vital.

I’m guessing that we would all view my friends partner as selfish. He left behind wife and kids simply to shed responsibilities. But what if he had left in order to fulfill some massive creative potential? Maybe if leaving had allowed him time to create a work of staggering genius we would view his choice more sympathetically. The artist Paul Gauguin moved with his family to Copenhagen to work as a stockbroker. In order to paint full-time, he returned to Paris and later moved to the Polynesian Islands, leaving his wife and five children behind.  In all likelihood he would not have fulfilled his potential as an artist if he had remained in Denmark and followed a career in business. Our view of his decision is coloured by admiration of the art created. We are moved to affirm his choices, despite the fact that his family were impoverished to such an extent that Gauguin outlived two of his children.

In a similar vein, I have a friend who recently split from his latest partner and now regrets leaving his first. I suspect that had this latest relationship delivered all that he wanted there would be little regret for the earlier one. So regret is somehow tied up with outcomes and perception too.

In his poem, Sentenced to Life, Clive James talks of  regret, of being “A sad man, sorrier than he can say.” Considering his life achievements we are tempted to take the Gauguin view, that the full achievement of creative potential is beyond regret, but read the poem and you can see that, as he approaches death, it is not how he himself sees it.

It is encouraged in the Buddhist tradition to contemplate death and impermanence as it is only by recognising how short life is that we are most likely to make it meaningful and to live it fully. At it’s most simplistic the sequences of events that make up a life can be affirmed unconditionally compared to not having lived at all. But regret is complex and conditional. Is it possible, therefore, to contemplate the life lived and to look back over that life without regret for things done and left undone? Is there always conflict between valuing the life lived
and regretting what might have been?

So we come full circle.

Had I remained in corporate world I would, in all probability, have built a career in the biomedical industry. I would now be viewing that life from a different perspective. I would find value in the life I had led. Looking now at what might have been I do not regret the choice to strike out in a more entrepreneurial direction but I have to acknowledge that my judgment now is coloured by my experiences as a consequence of that decision and affirmation of the life I have actually led. I may have been successful in that different corporate life but may have harboured the regret that I hadn’t ever started my own business. My affirmation of the life I have lived does not preclude the hint of regret that I would almost certainly have been a better artist had I taken my place at art school rather than studied Zoology.

We need to be able to look back on our lives, not without regret, but with a balance between affirming the life that we have lived and an understanding, and acceptance, of the life we may have led had we made different choices.

One reassuring thing is that, in a universe of multiple dimensions, there is a version of me living their life as a successful artist and where Liverpool just won the premiership.

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2 responses

26 05 2014
patricia2828

Hello Karen – I read this with particular interest as my oldest son Bruce Macleod took his own life recently and I have just ‘celebrated’ his life – he achieved so much in his short life, actor, artist, writer, poet and photographer but in his own words to me in a loving letter, he felt trapped in another character – he also just wanted a daddy that loved him. I have 4 children by the same father and he did not and could not show emotion or love, so all 4 children were starved of the love of a father yet they have all dealt with this in a different way. No matter how much love I lavished on them (we separated when the oldest was 10). In his own way Bruce regretted not having a ‘loving daddy’ but I have no regrets – I believe that I was meant to have these 4 children by this man and they are who they are because of this. Bruce suffered mentally because of this and despite being an avid reader and bringing me lots of articles on tips for my Mindcircles program he did not seem to be able to use them for long periods. My own thoughts on ‘life’ in general are that one of my attributes from my book 7 Attributes is resilience and those who are more able to cope with the demands and challenges of life have or are able to use ‘resilience’ to bounce back against such adversities. Just my thoughts at what is rather a ‘raw’ time but I hope that it gives comfort to many who have suffered tragedy. Thanks for your ‘thoughts’. Much love to all Patricia Elliot, Mindcircles

26 05 2014
the3rdi

Thank you Patricia and I’m so sorry to hear of your loss.
I read and enjoyed your book (http://www.the3rdimagazine.co.uk/2010/11/7-attributes-for-success/) and trust that this gives you strength at this difficult time
Karen x

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